Thursday, June 17, 2010

Shifting With The Paradigm

A lot of artists and photographers warn against the unauthorised use of images from their web sites, even if such use is 'non-commercial'. I can't help feeling that they're shooting themselves in the foot.
Copyright is a contentious issue. Like many other visual artists, composers and writers, I've thought hard about the consequences of relinquishing control over my work. Not that I have much choice in the matter: every image I upload to the web is likely be downloaded by someone else and re-distributed without my permission. And now that we all have cell-phone cameras that can SMS, email and access the web, even works in the real world can be captured and shared with ease. Nevertheless, the disadvantages of restricting the distribution of my work far outweigh the advantages.
Unfettered sharing encourages a wider awareness of my work and me.
I have licensed my images (and my words) under the flexible and user-friendly terms of Creative Commons for the past four years, allowing non-commercial users "to copy, distribute and transmit the work" under the following conditions: the user "must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work)". They must neither use the work for commercial purposes nor "alter, transform, or build upon the work" without my explicit permission.
Operating under this license is a fair and effective way of allowing reasonable public engagement with my work and my ideas and effectively 'unleashes' it so it can be reproduced and shared freely without impinging on those rights from which I might derive the most financial benefit, now or in the future, or on other rights I might have, such as 'fair dealing' or fair use rights, so-called moral rights, or even the rights of others either in the work itself or in how the work is used, notably privacy rights.
Many artists think that Creative Commons undermines their rights. They clearly don't understand that while it allows others limited use of one's work, it doesn't support, in any way, the idea that someone can steal it and claim it as their own.The specific terms of the Creative Commons license I use precludes the 'mash-up' of my work without permission or, worse, attribution.
On a personal level, I like to think that others can draw whatever they think they need from what I do – quote it, adapt it, synthesize it, copy parts of it, whatever – to create something distinctively different, providing they acknowledge me as the source. There is a big difference between plagiarism and appropriation, just as there is between forgery and reproduction.
Using another's work as a starting point is not at all new. Artists have fed off each others' ideas, themes and subject matter for several hundred years. The 'modern' tendency towards appropriation took root with Andy Warhol, whose unabashedly literal reproduction of press images and package design in the 1960s ruptured once comfortable boundaries between inspired originality and 'copying'.
Warhol's soup cans, soap boxes and screen-printed multiples of Elvis were important and liberating in their day. They appear a bit mundane now, especially given how easy technology has made replication of any sort. But Warhol's real innovation was recognising long before any venture-funded entrepreneur that attention was a form of currency. He was unperturbed when his own works – even images of him personally – were copied, re-worked and widely distributed. For him, as for the web generation he has inspired, ubiquity had replaced rarity as the key element of defining value.
In the new economic reality of the art world, increased awareness promotes increased opportunities for artists to exploit not only their work but themselves. The locus of value is shifting – from the 'product' to the 'producer'. Unquestionably, the wider distribution of 'product' (even if it's free product, shared without restriction) enhances the audience's awareness and with it, the value, of the producer.
As artists, we need to be focussing less on preserving our rights in our product and more on enhancing the value of ourselves as producers and being imaginative about how we exploit and extract that value.
Above: an iPhone self-portrait at The Cullen Hotel, in Melbourne


Sean Neprud said...

I've been asked if I am worried that people will just download the scan of art I put on my site, then just look at that instead of buying the art.

I could care less if they do, it means more people are looking at my art, and increases my exposure. More exposure leads to more sales, that equation is simple.

I think you nailed it when you wrote:
"ubiquity had replaced rarity as the key element of defining value"

James Schmeling said...

Excellent explanation of the use of the Creative Commons license to enhance the value of your work through building awareness. While I was in law school I was always fascinated with the intellectual property differences between trademark and copyright with the need to protect trademark IP by vigorously stopping others from using it. It was interesting how many people had the idea that copyright required the same. So many people are afraid that any grant of rights, or failure to stop fair use, reduces the value to the owner, it's great to see an artist explicitly recognize the value increase and to promote it.

I've always felt similarly with my photography - I've granted rights to use it with CC licenses in Flickr for instance (which makes it exceptionally easy and clear), or explicitly granted permission to use in other cases. I have also uploaded some to Wikimedia as well.

I enjoy seeing how others have used my work. On the other hand, I've never been a working photographer selling prints.

Melissa said...

What a great post, Hazel. I like the idea of putting my work out in the world for people to use and distribute as they wish, while retaining my exclusive rights to make money from it. And awareness leads to opportunities and increased value, as you say.

Rocket said...

I really like your perspective on this. As someone who has never sought to make a living from my art, it's probably easier for me to embrace the idea of valuing myself as producer (of what, I guess, could be debated...) rather than the "value" of my product. But, coming from an advertising background there has been many a job I cringed over because of a liberal interpretation (by someone else) of copy write and what people think is and isn't okay to reproduce.

I used to keep a post-it note of names (Artists) who's work crossed my desk with secret, naive and altruistic ambitions to contact them and tell them of the betrayal.

Great Post.

Shannon said...

I use creative commons for a lot of my writing and have had the same reaction from some other authors about it. Personally I really love making what I do as accessible as I can and sharing it in ways that may or may not be standard.

I really appreciate that you operate this way.

Solemn Reverie said...

I love that you photograph yourself nude and share them with the world. I don't mean this in a sexual or perverse way. To me, being nude before people has always symbolized freedom, in a sense. Freedom from not caring what people think about your body and all of its imperfections. You're exposing yourself and not hiding behind stifling clothes which is liberating. I love the freedom I feel from being nude.

Jenny Wynter said...

I was so interested to see at the Ron Mueck exhibition at GOMA that they not only freely let anybody take whatever photos, videos etc. that they liked, but actively encouraged it in their marketing materials. i.e. you can upload your fave pics to their twitter account, etc.

I think this is so smart - not only does it promote a great spirit of generosity in the exhibition itself, but it means that with people sharing their photos with their own personal networks, GOMA is getting some viral publicity with minimal effort!

Great post, I really enjoy reading your blog.

evilchimpo said...

Amen. Does this mean I don't get a percentage of the Dooney Dollar shoes? LOL.

karo Akpokiere said...

Well said Hazel. Visual culture can only evolve and continue to be rich when we take from it and give back to it instead of keeping what we have created out of fear and the need for unreasonable levels of control.Its a give and take situation.

I believe instead of worrying about what people will do with the work the best thing to do is to consistently be involved in producing work and marketing same, that way one will be one step ahead of those who desire to use the work without consent.

I tried exhibiting my work in two spaces years back but the plans never got off the ground then I met the internet and I got hooked to it immediately. 24hrs gallery space, worldwide stuff. I reckoned no traditional space could give me this exposure and I subsequently started the show.

I absolutely enjoy the process of sharing my work online, making it visible to a wide, wide audience, meeting new and interesting people (like you) . I see my hustle as been no different from that of musicians.

Definitely not everyone will follow this route but as long as it lasts, I am game. Thank you. Have a great weekend.

Fiona Purdy said...

"Using another's work as a starting point is not at all new. Artists have fed off each others' ideas, themes and subject matter for several hundred years". This is so true - in art there is really nothing new under the sun. I think it might behoove us to act as the Fashion industry does - there is no thing such as copyright in the Fashion World. Just watch this interesting video from a TED conference speech:

makes a lot of sense to me!

Walter Hawn said...

While I approve of people borrowing my stuff for their own use, I am wary of the Creative Commons program. It's the 'commons' part that bothers me. Even though the license terms clearly spell out that copyright is retained by me, the 'commons' undermines that. It seems to me that it is creating a common-law public domain, and that is not beneficial to artists or writers.

I agree with you that spreading my stuff hither and widely is a good idea, but CC is not the vehicle.

n. said...

great article - and i utterly agree. particularly if you're an artist making a living by promoting your own work - as opposed to being represented by a gallery or agent - why would you give up free publicity? we're always told to say 'yes' to every exhibition opportunity - this isn't really that different (particularly if all your work is nicely watermarked, and thus traceable straight back to your website).

i hope you don't mind - i referenced this article on my blog (then again - isn't that just more publicity?)