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Richard Prince Instagram selfies ignite fair use debate

Images of a selfie taken by the Suicide Girls, that Richard Prince repurposed and used in his 'New Portraits' exhibit.
Images of a selfie taken by the Suicide Girls, that Richard Prince repurposed and used in his 'New Portraits' exhibit.
Photo courtesy of the Suicide Girls

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Imagine this: You take a selfie, and post it to your Instagram account. You get lots of likes and comments, feel great about yourself, and then carry on with life. 

Months later, you come to find out that suddenly, your selfie is a $90,000 piece of art, and is hanging in a New York gallery.

Artist Richard Prince did just that to several people on Instagram. Earlier this month, the repurposed selfies were featured in the Frieze New York art fair.

Jack Lerner, who is a UC Irvine law professor specializing in issues dealing with technology and creative expression, explained that Prince's whole career is built upon appropriation -- and the use of these selfies pushes the fair use envelope.

"What he's really doing is saying, I'm going to make a statement about this type of work, about the concept of attribution," Lerner said. "Essentially, his art is a form of trolling, and by trolling, he's stimulating a debate."

Considering that nothing is sacred on the Internet, some may say that Prince's move comes as no surprise. But Lerner says that Instagram users don't necessarily give up any and all rights to their photos.  

"It doesn't mean that other people can use them," Lerner said. "You could say Richard Prince has also broken copyright law. So really, his only defense, and it's a pretty robust one, is that by creating a debate, and adding value by virtue of putting them in a gallery and putting his name on them, that he's made a fair use."

The SuicideGirls strike back

Among the images Prince took from Instagram was a photo of a SuicideGirl. The SuicideGirls are group of young models who often sport colorful hair, tattoos and piercings, and are meant to appeal to an alternative idea of beauty.

SuicideGirls founder Selena Mooney, AKA Missy Suicide, was not pleased.

"It's a violation. I understand the discussion that he's trying to start about digital rights, but I feel like, with Warhol, he took from corporations and people that were contemporaries, and what Prince is doing is taking from punk rock kids," she said.    

So, Missy came up with a plan to take a stand for her girls. They decided to print the exact image that Prince used in his show, and sell it for $90.

"We thought that we would take this opportunity to turn the tables on Richard Prince and sell the images for a price that the people who are in the images could afford," she said.