Copyright Infringement is as joyous and as rebellious as CJ Hendry, the viral artist it documents.
In 2013, Australian Cj Hendry dropped out of Queensland University to pursue an art career, a business that is both lucrative and often financially untenable. The tortured, poverty stricken artist is a trope long held in the media, as the median income for artists in Berlin is a mere $9,000 as David Sabshon’s documentary Copyright Infringement states. For Hendry, her career found financial sustainability quickly as her hyper realistic artwork went viral on social media, allowing her to move to New York and begin showing her work in art galleries.
But, as Sabshon’s playfully fun documentary says, we’re here for “Copyright Infringement”. The opening credits roll as we see iPhone-shot footage of people racing along streets to grab mysterious red boxes, the words “copyright infringement – trash only” plastered over them. Inside, those boxes hold special, limited edition t-shirts. What makes these T-shirts so special is soon revealed, as their defiant existence only materialised through Hendry herself being sued for copyright infringement.
Copyright law, and subsequently fair use, states that you can use material from others if you add your own critique or change the piece by adding your own individual artistic touch. In 2017, Hendry – whose fame emerged from hyper-realistic artwork – drew famous artists like Muhammad Ali to an eerie likeness. When taking those drawings from the canvas and onto marketable material, i.e t-shirts, she was issued with a cease and desist order for infringement on the likeness of Ali. Hendry, not one to take power being flaunted to limit artists lightly, thumbed her nose at this. Ordered to dispose of the t-shirt, she did just that, by creating a social media treasure hunt, making them freely available to those around New York who are willing to run around and find them.
After the overwhelming success of the 2017 New York drop – often literally dropping the boxes in random locations, or throwing them out of the car – Hendry continued the event over the next few years, escalating in size and spreading it out globally. Copyright Infringement covers the 2021 drop of the copyright infringed merchandise, this time with Hendry’s signature oppositional content being the work of controversial artist Damien Hirst rather than the realistic imitated likeness of a celebrity.
The film works predominantly as a behind-the-scenes of the copyright infringement event, touching often on Hendry as an artistic savant rather than any discussion around the actual copyright law of hyper-realism, or even the Ali Group’s response to basically being told to shove it. It makes for a documentary that is uninterested in educating, perfectly happy vibing along. In doing so, Sabshon captures the joyous, rebellious essence of what makes Hendry the contentious, sought after artist she is.
Copyright Infringement takes the 2021 drop – which now takes places over the course of a few days between New York, New Mexico, Chicago, Brisbane and London – and documents it as a fly-on-the-wall style doc, amalgamating social media posts with iPhone-footage from the superfans incessantly chasing after Hendry’s vehicle, along with handheld filming on location. All of these drops – some of which are handled by friends in the countries Hendry is unable to reach due to Covid19 – manage to encapsulate a micro-dosed version of the feeling felt during 2016’s Pokémon Go! phenomenon, of which the internet likes to cite as the only time peace on earth was achieved. Similarly to those Pokémon Go! months, whose existence seemed to act as a convalescent to society, Hendry’s free distribution of her art becomes the catalyst for community togetherness. Summed up quite succinctly by the image of film director David Sabshon helping them load the boxes into their van in order to succeed on their mission to stick it to the man.
Hendry spends a significant portion of the documentary confessing her love for snacks and ‘maccas’ (a colloquial term used in Australia to describe McDonald’s), as the minutia of these little joys showcase exactly the kind of affirming, lively person she is. One that is not trapped in the confines of any stuffy art trope, embracing and reveling in the modern day technology that has allowed her to become an artist integral for modern audiences to be drawn to.
With so much boundless, wholesome energy, Sabshon’s Copyright Infringement – a doc on an event that only existed to tell a corporation they won’t be bullied – transfigures into a sweet, jubilant film on the merits of community in a world separated by discourse, a pandemic and inaccessibility to art. While one may be left unsatisfied if they want a deeper dive into the intricacies of copyright law, Copyright Infringement is a delightful revelry on the spirit of togetherness in a world divided.
Copyright Infringement premiered at the Brooklyn Film Festival on June 9, 2023.