The Bauhaus movement is credited with leading the art, design and architecture revolution of the early 20th century, but its legacy may be stained with a copyright infringement tale.
The Bauhaus movement started with the Bauhaus school, a Germany-based institution that lasted from 1919 to 1931. Founded by Walter Gropius, a German architect, the Bauhaus school shifted locations throughout its lifespan – from Weimar to Dessau and later, Berlin – before political pressure from the Nazis shut down the school in 1931.
The school had a lasting influence on Western architecture, art, and design, and the Bauhaus movement is one that is widely studied by contemporary scholars and creators today. In its simplest form, the Bauhaus movement sought to combine design and industrialization, creating functional things that could be mass-produced for the betterment of society.
While its legacy is certainly incontestable, the Bauhaus movement’s founder, Gropius, has some dubious skeletons in his closet when it comes to promoting and advancing the Bauhaus movement and its mission.
British-born artist Lucia Moholy first came to the Bauhaus school with her husband, the artist László Moholy-Nagy. The Bauhaus philosophy required anyone and everyone who was part of its circle to contribute in some way to the movement’s purpose – for Moholy, a trained photographer, her contribution would be her startlingly beautiful work.
Moholy set about photographing the Bauhaus building, its students, and all of its contents. Moholy’s images didn’t focus solely on the architecture but rather offered a careful study of the people and ideas that prevailed at the Bauhaus school: Students in dark rooms and workshops, the furniture pieces in process, and the buildings that touted their singular Bauhaus style.
As Nazi Germany’s encroachment loomed over freedom of expression – and particularly, over artists – the Bauhaus movement was slowly shut down. By 1933, just years after the school had shut down, Moholy and her husband had separated. Engaged in a relationship with a Communist party official, Moholy feared arrest or worse and fled the country immediately. She eventually settled in London, though most of her belongings – including the Bauhaus negatives – were left in the care of someone else. Notably, the negatives of the photographs Moholy had taken were in the care of the Bauhaus movement’s founder, Walter Gropius.
After the war, the Bauhaus movement began to gain notoriety and renewed interest in its work. Suddenly, Lucia Moholy’s images were everywhere – in journals and newspapers, and circulating among scholars. It made sense: Though there were several Bauhaus photographers, Lucia Moholy’s photos were the most iconic. In 1938, Gropius used Lucia Moholy’s image in an exhibition on the Bauhaus at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Moholy received no credit for the work. In fact, though the images were widely redistributed, none had Moholy’s name attached to them. Moholy was getting absolutely no credit for her work, which was ironically one of the only remnants of the Bauhaus movement’s fabled history.
Does Gropius’s distribution of the images amount to copyright infringement?
It’s unquestionable that Gropius’s appropriation of Moholy’s photos for his own use is unethical, especially considering that Moholy did not give Gropius permission to use and circulate these images. In fact, once Moholy caught wind that her images had come to surface thanks to Gropius, she wrote him a letter asking him to stop using these images without her permission, or, at the very least, without the appropriate credit.
Gropius replied that the images were “of use to him” and ultimately, Moholy had to get a lawyer involved. But would Moholy be able to prevent Gropius for using her images without her consent?
This is the kind of issue that copyright scholars can get excited about because there are so many different angles to consider. International copyright laws vary from country to country, but most Western nations have similar laws in place. In Germany, copyright law is quite similar to U.S. copyright law: Copyright protections exist the moment a work is created, and only the creator enjoys copyright protection in the work. Only the author can grant another the right to distribute, make copies of, perform or publicly display their work.
So, it’s fairly certain that Moholy would have enjoyed the sole right to allow Gropius to publish and distribute her photographs – but unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that.
According to copyright laws, not every original work can be copyrighted. For example, facts, titles, names, and slogans aren’t copyrightable, and neither are ideas. And while Moholy’s work doesn’t fall into any of these categories, there’s an argument to be made about whether the photographs she took of buildings would be considered sufficiently ‘original’ to constitute copyright protection. After all, the building is someone else’s work, and she’s merely taking an image of it.
However, copyright law doesn’t exactly state that. Generally speaking, photos of three-dimensional works – such as buildings, or people interacting in buildings – would be considered wholly original, copyrightable works. Since the photographer has to employ a certain expertise, adjudging the depth of field, shadow, light and other elements so critical in photography, then the resulting work would be considered to be under copyright protection.
All things considered, it’s indisputable that Moholy had a reasonable expectation of copyright protection over her work, and Gropius’s refusal to cooperate with her wishes or even give her credit for those images is both unethical and violation of copyright law. But there is one more issue to consider – could Gropius’s use of the images be considered an exception to copyright law?
Is Gropius’s distribution of Moholy’s images considered fair use?
As with most things in life, there are exceptions to the rule that copyrighted work cannot be shared without the express permission of the author.
The fair use doctrine is an instrument used by courts that essentially allows a copyrighted work to be used without permission. The courts see the fair use doctrine as a sort of guarantee on the dissemination of free information, which many would agree is the overarching purpose of copyright law.
When confronted with a fair use argument, courts will conduct a four-prong analysis and make a decision based on the totality of the circumstances. The court will consider:
- the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
- the nature of the copyrighted work;
- the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
- the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
There are plenty of arguments that can be made both for and against the use of Lucia Moholy’s images of the Bauhaus by Gropius. On the one hand, the images Moholy took are widely recognized as being the most important historical record of the Bauhaus movement. Her documentary photography of the Bauhaus and its people and contents is unrivaled, and it makes sense that Gropius would want to use these images when publishing information about the Bauhaus in journals and the like. After all, the images serve an educational purpose, because they allow others to view the type of work Bauhaus students and scholars made, and study the philosophy and approach Gropius and others employed.
On the other hand, Gropius appropriated Lucia Moholy’s entire collection of photographs and failed to credit her for her work. Even after Moholy reached out to him, Gropius continued to use her work without giving her any recognition.
In addition, Lucia Moholy went on to make a career out of photography, though she received little recognition for her work in her lifetime. It’s possible that the images she shot of the Bauhaus movement could have turned her into an international sensation, and that she could have profited from the sale of the images of these works.
All things considered, it’s true that Lucia Moholy should have been granted copyright protection over her work. But, the Bauhaus movement was such a revolutionary and transformative movement that reverberated across the art world. It’s possible that a court would have considered the educational benefits to far outweigh any financial gain Lucia Moholy could have earned from the work.
Ultimately, Moholy was able to retrieve some – though not all – of the images, she shot of the Bauhaus movement. By that point, however, it was the 1960s.
What Can Artists Learn from Lucia Moholy’s Experience?
If you’re an artist or perhaps an art student, you may be engaged in the type of documentarian work that Moholy took on at the Bauhaus. Maybe you serve as your school’s photographer, or you’re making a documentary film about a movement going on in your local community.
The good news is, we’ve come a long way since the World War II era. Connectivity is far more advanced and its far less likely that your work will fall into the hands of someone that it doesn’t belong to. However, artists are faced with a new kind of issue – the advent of internet re-blogging. If you’re making documentary work and sharing it on the internet, then you might perhaps find that other people see a benefit in sharing and distributing your work.
Whether or not you want to profit from that work is totally up to you – maybe you’re fine with it being distributed because doing so serves a greater good. But if you’d like to reserve the right to your own work, then you might want to consider registering that work with the Copyright Office. You can check out our primer for getting your works registered if you’re stumped on where to begin.
Ultimately, an artist making documentary work will be forced to consider that the work likely does serve a higher educational purpose and therefore can’t really be considered copyright infringement – after all, it’s likely Lucia Moholy took on photographing the Bauhaus movement because she understood what they would ultimately mean.
Do you think Gropius’s use of Lucia Moholy’s images of the Bauhaus movement amounts to copyright infringement? Let us know in the comments!