Probably the most direct precedent of questionable copying is even older. Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre, which was based on a drawing left with him by his friend and colleague, the artist Henry Pelham, who was planning to have it published. Revere scooped his friend, who called the act "most dishonorable" after Revere's version became a blockbuster. The reality was more complex, since it was common for engravers to base their work on artists' renderings; they were not necessarily trained in drawing. The historian David Hackett Fischer has also observed that 18th century ideas about sharing and copying were intentionally loose, and that Revere himself believed in a collective idea of "publick liberty." Art historians and scholars of the Revolutionary age have further pointed out that Revere's crucial modifications of the image and inscriptions in it turned it from indignant reportage to inflammatory call to arms.
The Revere case also suggests the legal outcome of the present case. If the WNYC site is correct, there is no copyright claim outstanding regarding any of Mr. Dylan's images:
Of the 18 canvasses presented at the gallery, six appear on a Flickr photostream created by a user with the handle Okinawa Soba, who uploads galleries of old photographs from Japan and China.
In a recent post, Okinawa Soba wrote
that despite the Gagosian's claim that the paintings were inspired by
Bob Dylan's travels, "[I] can assure you that at least a good handful
are actually 'visual paint-overs' of old photos sitting in a box right
here in my house ... And quite a few others were copy-painted directly
from images still under copyright, with absolutely no credit given to
the photographers whose photographs he copied."
On his Flickr page, Okinawa Soba stated the photos on his stream are
all public domain. He did not specify which of the other Dylan
paintings were made from photographs still under copyright.
Another three of the paintings on display at the Gagosian appear to be painted from photos in the archival collections of Magnum Photos.
According to an executive at Magnum, those photographs were licensed
for use by Dylan, though he would not say when or for how much, making
it unclear whether they were cleared for use from the start, or after
accusations of plagiarism began to surface.
In a statement, the Gagosian Gallery defended Dylan and its
description of the exhibit, saying, "While the composition of some of
Bob Dylan's paintings is based on a variety of sources, including
archival, historic images, the paintings' vibrancy and freshness come
from the colors and textures found in everyday scenes he observed
during his travels."
All this is consistent with the Revere-Pelham dispute. The two seem to have settled amicably, probably with a share of profits. And since for better or worse, "intellectual property" has replaced Paul Revere's "publick liberty," superstars with multimillion-dollar income from copyrights are not likely to want to turn back the clock.