What Did You Buy?

Imagine you just bought a painting that was completed last year by an emerging Texas artist. And as long as you’re just imagining, let’s say it’s a life-size oil painting of Miley Cyrus as a cowgirl, inspired by Andy Warhol’s “Cowboy” Elvis. Aside from the enjoyment of owning such a unique work, what did you get and what can you do with it? The answer is, not as much as you might think. 

Buying art is not like buying other things. When you buy a hammer, for example, you are free to take a picture of it and post the picture on Facebook. You can use the hammer as a prop in ads for your law firm. You can paint the handle purple. You can even destroy it if you wish. When you buy a work of art, however, you might not be able to do any of these things. Indeed, you have to be much more careful when you buy art because your rights in the work may be limited. For example, copyright law, laws protecting rights of publicity, and a statute called the Visual Artists Rights Act, or VARA, restrict what you are allowed to do with Cowgirl Miley, even after you’ve paid for it and taken it home with you. 

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