Bob Dylan Looking Like a Copyright Infringer. Now What?

Is Bob Dylan–that champion of the poor, the tired, the oppressed–a brazen rip-off artist and infringer of photographers’ copyrights? And if so, who’s going to stop him?

©Rob McKeever/Gagosian Gallery--Bob Dylan's facsimile of the 1948 Cartier-Bresson photo shown below.

©Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos--a 1948 photograph of a eunuch who once served in China's Imperial Court.

Reports (here and here) about the exhibit of Dylan’s new paintings called “The Asia Series” at the Gagosian Gallery in New York certainly suggest a theft problem here. Several of the paintings appear to be unattributed facsimiles of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Gilden, Dmitri Kessel, Leon Busy, and others.

The Gagosian Gallery originally described the show as a a “visual journal” of Dylan’s travels in Asia. But after visitors began to recognize Dylan’s paintings for what they are, Gagosian took to calling “The Asia Series” a “visual reflection” of the legendary songwriter’s travels in Asia.

The Huffington Post quips, “No less than ten [of the paintings] may in fact be a visual reflections of Dylan’s travels through online photo archives rather than of any personal journey.”

Gagosian has issued a statement acknowledging that Dylan’s compositions are “based on a variety of sources, including archival, historic images.” But the gallery adds that “the paintings’ vibrancy and freshness come from the colors and textures found in everyday scenes he observed during his travels.”

In other words, Dylan has in some way transformed the images to make them his own–a point that could be subject to vigorous and costly debate in a federal court if Dylan gets sued.

That’s a big if. Right now, the question is: Who (if anyone) has the temerity and resources to take Dylan to court for copyright infringement?

Another pressing question is, Why is the Gagosian Gallery continuing to aid and abet copyright infringers? Earlier this year, a federal court found that Gagosian and Richard Prince infringed photographer Patrick Cariou’s copyrights by exhibiting a series of Prince paintings that were copied from Cariou’s photographs. Did Gagosian learn anything at all from its ignominious legal defeat in that case? (Prince, by the way, is appealing the verdict.)

Finally, a bonus question: If you or I–rather than Bob Dylan–had painted “The Asia Series,” would Gagosian have even let us in the door with this pile of photo faxes, much less mounted an exhibition?

All together now: The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Related story:
Appropriation Artist Richard Prince Liable for Infringement, Court Rules

11 Responses to “Bob Dylan Looking Like a Copyright Infringer. Now What?”

  1. Graham Martin Says:

    I find this case very strange.
    As both a Dylan fan and a Photography fan, I have noticed Bob’s love of photography and in particular the prestigious Magnum agency after he used images by Bruce Davidson, Josef Koudelka and Leonard Freed (all Magnum photographers) on his last 2 album packages. And now both Cartier-Vresson (Magnum founder) and Magnum stalwart Bruce Gilden’s images have been copied for Dylan’s ‘Asia Series’.
    What I find strange is that Dylan is intelligent enough to realise he can’t get away with this kind of thing and also that these are famous images by famous photographers and he also hasn’t covered his tracks very well by already using images by Magnum photographers in his album covers, so I think he is doing it for a reason.
    His cover painting for The Band’s ‘Music From Big Pink’ and his previous ‘The Brazil Series’ proves that is capable of painting original scenes, so why resort to plagiarism now?
    Like in the Folk and Blues tradition of passing down songs, imitation, quoting musical phrases or lyrics, reinterpreting standards or modern arrangements of originals, perhaps Dylan is attempting this style of homage to photographic greats by reversing the norm of photography being influenced by art.
    The pictorialists borrowed a lot form Renaissance art and Art Nouveau in their photographic style and compositions.
    I would personally be honored if Bob chose one of my photographs to paint.
    I would however like to see the man acknowledge the photographers he has copied and make some sort of statement of his intentions.
    Every move Dylan makes is puzzling and often dumbfounding, but that ad’s to his mystique I find. Whatever he’s doing, he’s doing it for a reason.

  2. A UK Reader Says:

    Especially ironic given that almost all the YouTube videos of Bob Dylan performances have been removed ‘for copyright infringement’.

    Doubly-ironic, in that the removers (Bob? Sony?) seem to be unaware of the huge advertising effect of YouTube: something that most performers recognise and court. Bob’s head seems to be stuck in pre-web days.

    I know of a number of major review sites that embed videos and have simply dropped Mr. Dylan / Sony out of their free advertising.

  3. angelique Says:

    i think, this is the normal process of learning to paint is to copy other people’s work. You learn composition and lighting techniques. The problem is, with famous people, these “learning” works become valuable themselves. Additionally, celebrities have rather large egos and live in a sort-of fantasy world they create themselves. The general thirst by the majority of us for authenticity really doesn’t mix well with the life-state of celebrity. I’m not making excuses for Dylan here, just trying to provide some insight into how this plagarism could occur.

  4. WithNoDementiaHome Says:

    Is there copyright violation simply by making & displaying?

    Does displaying in gallery = publishing?

  5. Claire Richards Says:

    I’m so glad I can shove this in front of the faces of all my Dylan-lovin friends. Art Fail, Bob. Art fail, Gagosian.

  6. D Klecan Says:

    I don’t get it. We can argue until we turn blue in the face about the pro of Dylan gathering images to support his impressions of Asia from other photographers, etc. but if I were to take the time to paint…images…impressions, whatever of my travels, I would use my own point and shoot touristy images, background images from travel posters, postcards. etc. My travel paintings…who cares…. paintings from Dylan, regardless of the source or theme, would still be shown and bought The fact that he took the time to find these particular images to paint…tells me that he knew what he was doing.

  7. Michael Harding Says:

    I think the point is this: he’s really, really lazy. The journey is the thing that transforms a recording of something (or copying a photograph) into a personal document.

    There can be no defence for Dylan on this; he knows better. SImple.

    A dishonest artist is nothing more than an opportunistic businessman; this illustrates how far Dylan has strayed from his claimed moral ground.

    For shame.

  8. Michael Harding Says:

    “The fact that he took the time to find these particular images to paint…tells me that he knew what he was doing.”

    Indeed, he knew what he was doing. He would sue your butt from here to kingdom come if you (or me) were to appropriate his song lyrics, use them in an ad, and not pay him for them.

  9. Charles Maring Says:

    Question is… Which is more valuable? Cartier’s and Bruce’s original, or Dylan’s painting??

  10. The Photo Advocate Says:

    Shocking piece of news! The question that keeps crossing my mind is what would Henri Cartier-Bresson think? He must be turning in his grave.

    The Magnum Agency was founded on the principle of protecting photographers copyright after having for far too long been exploited by the printed press. Four of the greatest photographers were fearlessly protective of their work to the extent that HCB would never allow any commercial use.

    So where’s the money going from the exhibition? I would sincerely hope that the photo industry gets behind this and the HCB Foundation and Magnum Photos sue BD for all he’s got! In a court of law you would hope they should win rather than who’s got the biggest check book!

  11. vinsanity Says:


    that’s all.