Artist Copyrights Land as Artwork to Save It From Oil Pipelines (Video)

Video screen capture. Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Arts Awards via YouTube

Picture this: an oil company wants to run a pipeline through the land you and your family have lived on for years. They're offering you a large sum of money, and have a squad of lawyers behind them. What would you do?

It's a difficult question. Many conscientious people would no doubt object on principle, but how might one actually fight a giant corporation if push came to shove? Faced with this exact same dilemma when oil pipeline developers came to call back in 1996, Canadian artist Peter von Tiesenhausen not only refused to allow a pipeline through his family's 80-acre property in Demmitt, Alberta, he's also put a copyright claim on the property, which hosts his studio and a number of the artist's large-scale outdoor art installations. The artist's copyright claim on the land as a work of art has kept the companies at bay for two decades now. As he tells VICE in an interview:

So when I told a friend about all this she said, 'Well you should just copyright your land like the architect, [Douglas] Cardinal, who was trying to copyright his church in Red Deer.' So the next few times I was faced by these guys, and they're threatening me with the arbitration, that memory came back to me and I just blurted it out without any kind of legal understanding. I did my research after that and actually claimed copyright.
As an artist in Canada, you automatically have copyright over your own creations for up to 50 years after your death. So if you create something you retain copyright unless you sell it. So that was the part of that law that we decided to enforce.

Without the copyright, von Tiesenhausen would only be entitled to surface rights, meaning that he could still be forced by the provincial government to allow companies access to the land. As the Edmonton Journal puts it, the copyright, however, "mimics strong legal foundations of pharmaceutical, computer software, and publishing corporations" and turned out to be something that the oil companies didn't want to challenge, for fear that others would follow von Tiesenhausen's rather inspiring example.

Besides this clever bit of legal wrangling, von Tiesenhausen was able to stop the frequent visits from oil company representatives by charging them for every meeting:

I’m not trying to get money for my land, I’m just trying to relate to these companies on their level. Once I started charging $500 an hour for oil companies to come talk to me, the meetings got shorter and few and far between.

Von Tiesenhausen's love for nature and the land is evident not only in his works, but also in the way the artist is striving to build up his community. He helped to bring to fruition an effort to build a self-sustaining, energy-efficient community centre out of local materials, which now acts as a hub for all sorts of activities in this small town. In spite of the difficulties in facing down such a Goliath of an opponent, von Tiesenhausen remains optimistic about the future:

Oh man, I'm telling you there's never been more hope. There's never been more hope in my existence because there's a consciousness arising. There are people all over the place demonstrating, the Occupy movements... it's the biggest uncharted movement in the history of the planet.
Stuff is gonna change. It has to. Because we won't survive if we don't. [..] What you can do is see everything as an opportunity, everything as a potential raw material, whether it's people, politics, or a situation.

Great food for thought, if those oil companies come knocking on your door.

Read more over at VICE and Preserve the Beartooth Front as well as his website at