Derivative artwork contains an image that is a direct copy of another, usually better known and often legally protected, piece of artwork. A famous example of a derivative piece of work is Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (1919) which is Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with a mustache.
There is a bit of a stigma if an artist’s style matches someone else’s too closely but that in of itself is not necessarily derivative. However, for example, if an artist has studied Georgia O’Keefe extensively and the artist uses the same medium that O’Keefe used and the artist paints flowers in extreme close up like O’Keefe and if the artwork could be mistaken for an O’Keefe … then the term derivative might be appropriate. There is a strong taint of disapproval when the label derivative is applied to a piece of art. Other related terms like copyright infringement and appropriation also have unpleasant connotations and may carry legal ramifications as well.
It seems to me, with admittedly anecdotal evidence, that hobby artists tend to go in one of two ways with regard to copyrights, appropriation, and derivative artwork. The first path is to obsessively eschew all hints of any amount of appropriation and to observe copyright right laws and claims to the point of almost paralysis. The second option is to be blithely unaware that they are even appropriating or copying another artist’s work.
The situation is a bit more complex if you add in professional artists because there are other recognized levels of acceptable appropriation. And levels of inappropriate appropriation. Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst have all been involved in copyright infringement cases. The word derivative almost seems, at the higher echelons within the art world, more like a snide comment than an actual accusation of copyright infringement. Of course, once the District Courts are involved the amount of money at stake might matter more than a bit of pride. That’s all beyond my pay grade, obviously. But for more on copyright infringement, from a legal standpoint, click here:
The picture that accompanies this post is a portrait of Marcel Duchamp (by Man Ray, 1920-21, Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, gelatin silver print, Yale University Art Gallery) that I have altered in a way that pleased me and would have hopefully pleased Duchamp. Man Ray would have probably appreciated this part more.