During his long career, Bob Dylan has marched against the Vietnam War, campaigned for the civil rights movement, and written progressive anthems which highlight such social blights as poverty, racism, criminality and nuclear proliferation.
Now the “voice of a generation” faces a battle which may end-up leaving him on the wrong side of history. It pits the multi-millionaire pop legend against Rob Oechsle, a middle-aged photography enthusiast from Pennsylvania.
Mr Oechsle, 58, is otherwise known as “Okinawa Soba,” the owner of an account on the photo-sharing website Flickr. Earlier this week, it emerged that several of the paintings in Dylan’s latest New York art show were direct copies of pictures from that very feed.
“It’s plagiarism, pure and simple” Mr Oechsle told The Independent. “If a writer were to use a phrase from Shakespeare, and not credit him, or attribute it in any way, that’s what they’d be accused of. There’s an ethic expected of an artist, and Bob Dylan should be good enough to have it.”
When Dylan’s show opened at Manhattan’s Gagosian Gallery last month, the 18 oil paintings were billed as a “visual journal" of his travels in Asia, containing "first hand depictions of people, street scenes, architecture and landscape." In its catalogue, the singer claimed: “I paint mostly from real life.”
It has since emerged, however, that at least half of the works are copied from the internet. Six of them came from Mr Oechsle's Flickr account, which contains antique photos of Japan which he collected during thirty years as a resident of Okinawa.
“Why didn’t he just credit the source?” says Oechsle, who was alerted to the theft by users of a Dylan fan site, Expecting Rain. “That would be the civil thing to do: give credit, say thanks, and acknowledge where the idea came from. If someone made a record that copied Dylan’s music, he’d hit the roof; there’s a double standard here.”
The musician didn’t just rip off Oechsle’s pictures; he also claimed they represented fictitious locations. A Dylan painting called “Shanghai” was based on a photo taken in Guangzhou. One called “Mae Ling,” a Chinese name, was cribbed from a shot of the Ainu, an indigenous people from Japan.
“It’s lazy, the sort of thing you’d expect from a tourist,” says Oechsle. “He’s just copying stuff but not paying attention to the subject.”
Dylan’, whose gallery won’t reveal the price of the paintings, did not actually breach copyright - since the antique images from Oechsle’s Flickr are too old to be protected by proprietary laws. But in a move which now looks shifty, given that the paintings were originally marketed as first-hand works, it seems that he did seek formal permission to sell a painting based on a 1948 photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
His subsequent failure to own up to their actual provenance is a flagrant breach of Flickr etiquette, says Oechsle. “You should give due credit. It’s a social civic duty, part of being civilised,” he said. “It’s sad, because I’m a fan of Dylan. I grew up with him and bought his records. When a song of his comes on the radio, I used to turn the volume up.” But, he adds: “I guess you could say the times, they are a-plagiarising.”