Kamil Kubik: The Artist and Copyright Observed

by Elizabeth Townsend Gard, Tulane University of Louisiana & Yvette J. Liebesman, Saint Louis University

from Volume 5, Issue 1 (Spring 2015)

Download this Article in PDF format from The Jerome Hall Law Library’s Digital Repository.

Abstract: For over 60 years—from the time he fled his native Czechoslovakia in 1948 until his death in August 2011—Kamil Kubik created amazing oil paintings and pastels. His art graces the walls of The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, the Old Ebbett Grill in Washington, DC, and the homes of Presidents, Governors, and celebrities. Many of his works were also printed as lithographs and serigraphs, and sold at more affordable prices than the four-to-five figures that he received for the originals. Fortunately, he was not dependent on the sale of these prints, as most of the original works were unprotected by copyright, and many of the prints were unauthorized reproductions.

Copyright law is the key protection for the artistic and economic interests of an author. For a working artist, copyright law can be a vital tool in defending his personal property interests. As such, the result of the particular copyright law in effect at a specific point in time is dramatic and binary—a work is either under copyright or in the public domain; there is no middle ground.

This essay examines the parallel relationship between Kamil’s biography and the copyright law that affected his works. What role did copyright law play, and how did his relationship with copyright provide insight into our own relationships with copyright law? Kamil’s life, as seen through the lens of copyright presents an opportunity to observe how the law interacted with an artist during the mid-20th through early 21st century. He produced artwork that spanned several distinct eras of United States copyright law, and his works created abroad add an additional dimension to their legal quagmire. The laws of copyright dramatically changed in the United States alone at least three times during Kamil’s lifetime.

The complexity of the interaction between copyright law and Kamil’s work is not unique. Though this article chronicles his travels, his art, and how his copyright rights changed through time and space, it could be the story of many visual artists. The essay is important for 20th century visual artists themselves and their estates, and may provide valuable insight to museums and others interested in digitizing artists’ works. By focusing on Kamil’s journey, we hope to illuminate the intricacies, peculiarities, and sorrows that make up the copyright story of 20th century artists.