How many times have you looked at a piece of artwork online, and seen a big ugly watermark slapped right across it?
Here’s one of mine from my website back in 2004:
Yes, I actually used to put that big (C) on all the images of my paintings on my site, telling visitors in no uncertain terms that these are my images, and you must not use them in any way.
If you saw something like that, would it endear you to the artist in any way? Would it make you want to look at more of their art? Would you think “good for them, protecting their copyright from nasty internet art thieves!” If so, you may want to skip this post and join me again next time.
My search for a copyright alternative
I’ve been uncomfortable with copyright for quite a while now.
I’ve written elsewhere about why you shouldn’t worry about people stealing your images online, but it’s only in the last few weeks that I’ve really started to look into the possibility of abandoning copyright completely.
In my search, I came across the blog of Gwenn Seemel, an artist who writes regularly about copyright, and has even written an entire book – You Share Good – about why it might be a good idea for artists to give up copyright.
It’s a great read, covering pretty much everything you need to know to make your decision. I’ll try and summarise some of the key points here:
Art is not created in a vacuum
Art ownership is a tricky business.
Just because you painted something, does that mean it belongs to you?
Sure, you own the original painting itself, as an art object, but what about the image as a whole?
Take my portrait of Jeff Buckley from the top of this page, which I metaphorically pee’d on to mark it as my property. I painted it, so it’s mine, right? But what about the subject, Jeff himself (rest in peace)? Without him, the painting would not exist, so shouldn’t he get some of the credit? And in fact the likeness is taken from the cover of his album, Grace, so the photographer also played an important role. And in a sense, music itself is a vital component, as without that cultural context, the painting of Jeff the musician wouldn’t make sense.
What Gwenn explains (far more succinctly than I can), is that “‘every piece of culture is made by building on the culture that came before it'”.
[bctt tweet=”Every piece of culture is made by building on the culture that came before it – @gwennpaints”]
Art is meaningless without its cultural context, and it seems strange to suggest that one person’s contribution to culture can be separated from its context and owned as intellectual property.
Copyright, as the name suggests, is concerned with preventing unauthorised copying, or imitation.
This suggests that imitation is a bad thing.
But imitation is exactly the thing that has created all of culture.
As artists, we learn by looking at the art that already exists, imitating it, and giving it our own unique voice.
So in a sense, copyright law could be seen as something that is a hindrance to the evolution of culture!
What are the alternatives?
So you may be wondering what the alternative to copyright is, and there are really two main options.
The first is to use a Creative Commons license, which lets people copy and redistribute your work, or use it to create derivative works, with certain conditions, such as requiring attribution or stipulating that they must use the same license.
The second option, and the one I’m personally in favour of, is to do what Gwenn Seemel has done, and abandon copyright completely.
Sure, placing your artwork in the public domain means it could potentially be used by someone else to make money, but it doesn’t restrict the ability of the artist to make money from their art as well.
You can still sell original paintings, you can still sell prints, you can still teach workshops, and you can do all of that with a spirit of mutual trust and sharing, knowing that you are connecting openly with people, and contributing to cultural expression in your own uniquely imitative way.
How this applies to me
From this week, I have removed the standard copyright notice from the footer of my website, and will be replacing it with a link to a page explaining that my work is now in the public domain.
Feel free to share, repost and rework any of my images to your heart’s content (you no longer need my permission after all!)
If you’re not convinced about this whole concept, I’d advise you to read You Share Good, which goes into much more detail.
If you don’t like reading, Gwenn also did a talk at TEDxGeneva on the subject, which provides a great overview in just over ten minutes.
I’m sure this idea is completely alien to a lot of artists, so I’d love to start a discussion around it. Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.