Copyright. We’re all familiar with copyright, and I’m sure we all understand its fundamental importance in protecting artist’s work. But in these times of burgeoning technological developments and social media, how do we negotiate copyright and should artists and galleries take a new approach to protecting their output?
Why do I ask? There are a number of reasons. Firstly I am currently Digital Content Co-ordinator for the Art in Yorkshire – Supported by Tate iPhone app and website.
The process of gaining permission to use images of artists work within the app and the website was like pulling teeth. In some cases I had to clear an image through four different parties: the participating venue, the funders, the artist’s representative, and DACS (Design and Art Copyright Society). And there is of course a (sometimes hefty) fee attached to using these images.
Even artists whose work is out of copyright (when they have been dead for over 70 years) can still bound up in copyright challenges as the museums/galleries that hold the pieces in their collections claim copyright on the photographs of the artwork.
Secondly it has become a common topic on Twitter and Facebook that visitors to art galleries are increasingly annoyed that they can not take photographs of the work they are enjoying; either for their own amusement or to share with friends and followers on social networks.
UK copyright law is particularly strict; you will find few, if any of the restrictions on photographing artwork in museums in America or Europe– in fact the MOMA iPhone app even includes a camera to encourage you to take photographs of their collections.
So why does copyright exist? And why do we have such restrictive rules on photography?
Artists, understandably, want to protect their work. They want to make sure that it is shown in the right context and is not wrongly attributed or assigned to things which they would not endorse. And they wish, perfectly rightly, to reap any profit arising from the use of images of their work.
Museums and galleries, hard pushed for cash want to find ways to monetise their collections wherever they can, so charging for use of images seems a logical thing to do.
But I question these approaches because they both put up barriers that stop others enjoying and promoting the artwork.
Not being able to take a photo of a work that they’ve enjoyed stops a blogger writing about it, or a Twitter user sending it out to their followers and enticing them to visit, or even a gallery promoting a show that they are staging as it is too expensive to use an image of the artists work.
Surely a more sensible path to take would be to use Creative Commons. This licensing structure means the artist or museum retains ownership and copyright of a work but that the image of it is available to be used as long as it is attributed.
Creative Commons is a system where you can choose the licence you wish to give your work (that could be the artwork itself, a photograph of it, a video interview, an audio podcast, or even a piece of text). The licences allow people to legally share creative works and are available free of charge.
The most open CC licence is simply ‘Attribution’ – you can do whatever you like with the creative work as long as you credit the original author. Sounds a bit crazy? Don’t worry you can also apply a licence that requires credit for the author, can not be used for anything commercial and must not be edited or altered in any way – keeping the work intact but saying: ‘Yes, it is OK to share this as long as you don’t make any money out of it and the work is credited properly’. And there are various alternatives in between.
If artists started to use Creative Commons for imagery of their work, it would mean venues showing the work could publicise it without fear of huge fees and complicated negotiations. It would allow those venues to develop innovative ways to promote, publicise and share the work. Visitors could take photographs and share them – widening audiences and introducing new people to art.
The idea of copyright is totally embedded in our creative world, yet I wonder if most artists and arts professionals really understand the implications of it. As we shoot headlong into a future where information is at our fingertips, I believe we need to start re-negotiating how we use copyright, or we may just be left standing in a corner whilst everyone else zooms on ahead.