The Madeleine Brand Show is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by Madeleine Brand
Arts & Entertainment

Lawsuit between origami enthusiasts unfolds

Bull Moose figure crafted by Robert Lang.
Bull Moose figure crafted by Robert Lang.
Robert Lang
Bull Moose figure crafted by Robert Lang.
Irish Elk origami by Robert Lang.
Robert Lang
Bull Moose figure crafted by Robert Lang.
Irish Elk crease pattern with facets colored according to their orientation in the crease pattern.
Robert Lang
Bull Moose figure crafted by Robert Lang.
Installation View of "Robert Towne, Ring Paintings and Origami," by Sarah Morris, seen in 2007 at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York.
Norbert Miguletz
Bull Moose figure crafted by Robert Lang.
Installation View of "Gemini Dressage," by Sarah Morris, seen in 2009 at the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt.
Norbert Miguletz
Bull Moose figure crafted by Robert Lang.
Installation View of "Gemini Dressage," by Sarah Morris, seen in 2009 at the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt.
Norbert Miguletz
Bull Moose figure crafted by Robert Lang.
Origami crease pattern. TreeMaker pattern with valid paths (yellow) and active paths (green). There are no invalid paths (red) in this pattern.
Robert Lang

Listen to story

Download this story 3MB

Origami is the Japanese art of folding paper. You start with one square sheet. You crease it, fold it and pretty soon you've created a bird or maybe a frog.

Expert origami artists can take that same sheet and make elaborate flowers or lifelike insects.

There's a lawsuit pending though, that could shake up the craft of origami, and the art world in general. Reporter Sanden Totten takes us inside a dispute between and origami maker and a painter.

Origami artist Robert Lang is suing abstract painter Sarah Morris, claiming that she used his designs in her paintings without asking permission.

But let's back up. To understand the problem, you need to know a thing or two about modern origami. For starters, we’re not talking about this:

“I folded this paper crane,” said 7th grader Junko Cohn. “It has wings, the tail, the head. And in the end you blow it up so it looks like it has more of the shape and structure of the body.”

She just learned how to fold her first paper bird. It’s cute but the origami important to this case is more like this:

“We’re looking at my bull moose, Opus 413. And it’s got the full body of a moose, but also a pretty detailed set of antlers, ears and a face,” said Robert Lang.

The moose mentioned above started as a 40-inch sheet of paper. Now it’s a detailed foot-tall 3D sculpture, and the antlers alone have 18 different meticulously folded points.

“If someone says, ‘Well, what do you do?’ I say, ‘I am an origami artist.’ And then they say, ‘Is that like simple toys?’ And then I have to say, ‘No, it’s a little different.’ So usually I will pull out my business card and show them one of my origami creations that’s on my business card. And then they’ll go, ‘Oh wow! I didn’t realize origami could be like that!’” he said.

Origami can be like that in Robert Lang’s hands. He can fold a single sheet into a 5-horned beetle, a life-sized cowboy hat, a pterodactyl, a spider, a scorpion, and even a koi fish, all complete with tiny, folded scales.

Robert Lang can do all this thanks to computers.

Modern origami artists use specialized computer programs to map the complicated folds that will yield fantastic shapes. These maps are called “crease patterns.”

“When you look at a folded shape, a lot of what goes into that shape is hidden. A crease pattern in a way gives you a view of what’s inside," said Lang.

Picture a square grid full of crisscrossing lines and overlapping shapes. A crease pattern looks like a graph in an algebra textbook or abstract painting. And that’s where the lawsuit begins.

Sarah Morris is an abstract painter. Awhile back, she started exploring modern origami.

“And I saw these crease patterns and they interested me greatly," she said. "I was intrigued by this universal coding and language. If you know my paintings, I am very interested in graphic design. I am very interested in systems and mathematics.”

So Sarah Morris took a bunch of crease patterns, changed some lines, added colors to the shapes and turned them into very large paintings.

“Now of course a painting is inherently, phenomenologically not a piece of paper. You cannot fold a painting. So it’s almost like setting up the viewer with an impossible task,” said Morris.

The series, dubbed Origami, went on display five years ago. And here’s where the story folds back to origami artist Robert Lang.

“I got two e-mails from two different people within a day or two of each other where they sent me images where they said ‘Hey, this looks like your work but it’s got someone else’s name on it,” said Lang.

And that’s the nut of the lawsuit. Robert Lang says Sarah Morris used his designs without giving him credit. Morris says her finished product is fundamentally different from Lang’s patterns.

Morris: “These are paintings. They are paintings of images. You know, they are not photographs.”

Lang: “Most of them you could put one on top of the other and if they are sized the same, everything lines up.”

Morris: “I mean the context is different. My intention is different.”

Lang: “Well, that argument could be applied to just about anything.”

Morris: “I think it’s clear that I’ve transformed it in terms of appearance, scale, meaning.”

Lang: “If an independent third party recognizes my work in it — I don’t think that’s very transformative.”

Did you catch that? “Transformed.” “Transformative." There’s meaning there — legal meaning.

A work of art can legally use copyrighted images if it transforms the old work into something new.

But how do we know when a work of art is transformative?

“You are asking a very difficult question because that’s something that courts struggle with,” says attorney Sergio Munoz Sarmiento specializes in art and copyright law. “Even well-seasoned judges who have done copyright cases are still struggling with what exactly does ‘transformative’ mean?”

Munoz Sarmiento says there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to figuring out fair use. Each case is different.

And in Lang versus Morris, the outcome will depend in part on what the court thinks of crease patterns. Are they art in their own right or just instructions?

There’s no court date yet. Lang and Morris could settle. But so far, they’re standing their ground. For Morris, this case is about protecting an artist’s right to use found images.

“Whatever you think of, say, Warhol, Lichtenberg, Rauchenberg, imagine you lost all of that work. Imagine that wasn’t there in the 20th century. That’s what would happen, you know?” she said.

For Robert Lang, the case is about getting credit for his craft.

“The copyright law says artists get to decide how their work is used. And that is not happening here,” he said.

And now, both sides will have to get use to a very different kind of paper: stacks and stacks of legal briefs.