Alberta artist Peter van Tiesenhausen has provided an interesting legal precedent in his long-running battle with oil companies seeking to run a pipeline through his 800 acre territory. He has copyrighted his land as a work of art.
Typically, industry can negotiate a land acquisition agreement with a property owner and then claim right-of-way to run a pipeline across whatever properties stand in the way of getting its product to market.
The artist moved to Demmick, Alberta, about 80 kilometres from Grande Prairie, with his family when he was a boy. Over time, he has watched industry transform that landscape. “I grew up there, and the oil and forestry industries have just devastated it,” he said in an interview with fellow artist Marina Black in May of last year.
Of course, artists transform the landscape in their own way, calling into question the relationship between people and nature, whether it’s Robert Smithson with his “Spiral Jetty” or Frederick Law Olmsted with his careful designs for Central Park and Mount Royal.
Realizing that mining companies can legitimately lay claim to any land underneath private property to a depth of six inches, van Tiesenhausen contacted a lawyer who drew up an intellectual property/copyright claim that said that if the oil company disturbed the top six inches in any way, it would be a copyright violation.
This is eerily similar to the defense Portia deploys against Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” in which he is legally entitled to extract a pound of flesh from a debtor who can’t pay, so long as he doesn’t extract a single drop of blood or marrow or bone.
“The oil company wanted to come across with a pipeline,” said van Tiesenhausen. “And I said: No! And they said that I don’t have any choice because we own the top six inches and they own everything else underneath, the mineral rights, etc. That’s the way it works in Canada. And I said: you can put your pipeline as long as you don’t disturb the surface. Of course, it’s pretty much impossible or very expensive. But it’s not a field or just a forest, it is an artwork! And they realized that I have a case. So for last 15 years they have left me alone.”
Shylock’s reply to the judge, after realizing he wouldn’t be able to claim his debt was, “Is that the law?”