Friday, December 01, 2006

In What Context, if Ever, Should Art Be Free?

Strange question from a dealer, I realize, but I'm also an art lover, so....

Here's what prompted my pondering:

In a move which could transform art publishing, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (V&A;) is to drop charges for the reproduction of images in scholarly books and magazines. Reproduction costs now often make it difficult to publish specialist art historical material. The new scheme will come into effect early next year.

The V&A is believed to be the first museum anywhere in the world which is to offer images free of copyright and administrative charges. It also intends to take a “liberal” view on what should be deemed scholarly or educational. The new arrangements will normally apply to all books published by university presses. Free images will also be available for exhibition catalogues and journals such as Apollo and The Burlington.
Personally I applaud the V&A for loosening their guidelines for reproduction fees, even while recognizing that they're not making that great a sacrifice here (as the article notes, "administering the system eats into the profits"), and it stands to reason that there may be residual benefits to publishers seeking their images first (they'll still be credited and folks will know where to find the real work). Of course, they're not giving away the art, just the rights to reproduce its image, but still, this was an instance where they had charged a fee even though the purpose of the reproduction was educational.

Further fueling my question here is a conversation I had last night. I was talking with a music director for a private elementary school who wanted to produce "Oklahoma" with her students but the school couldn't afford the fees. This would have been for a free performance, open to the public, by children, mind you. I know that fees for plays for profit are standard (and rightly so), but it seemed a pity that she was gonna have to settle for a lesser musical that didn't cost as much. We both agreed that artists most definitely deserve to be paid for re-use of their work if anyone else is getting paid, but when does it make sense to be a bit more altruistic regarding royalties? Isn't there some value to the artist in having those students grow up to love "Oklahoma" and perhaps buy the movie, pay to see the play, or perhaps later produce it themselves as adults?

Easy for me to say, I realize...I'm not an artist. But many of you are. What's your take on the free use of work you created in a non-profit or educational context? Never a good idea? Depends on the instance? What the hell you smokin' Ed?


Anonymous pp said...

Museums often do damage to the art, as many have noted (Mayakovsky, for example). Type in "Ellsworth Kelly", or "Giorgio Morandi" in search engine and close to the top of the list come Teacher's Packs from Tate. These are outright silly. I'd suggest you cut and save the images and ignore the text, if you are interest in the artist

12/01/2006 09:45:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

There's an important distinction between art being free and people being allowed to use reproductions for free. There's also an important distinction between living and dead artists, and between artists being compensated and some museum making money.

My feeling is that if the artist is alive, they should decide who can and can't reproduce their images (or perform their plays, etc.), and whether they want to be paid or not. If the artist is dead and the artwork is owned by some museum, who cares? I think that anyone should be able to use the images freely at that point.

For living visual artists, that's pretty much my undertanding of current US copyright law, that the artist retains reproduction rights unless they sell them to someone else. For music, anyone can record someone else's song without permission, but they have to pay a standard royalty rate based on sales (unless they negotiate a different deal w/ the songwriter/publisher). Live performances of music, as well as radio play, are paid for by fees paid to ASCAP and BMI, and distributed to writers on a pro-rated basis.

I'm not sure how it all works w/ long-dead visual artists. Aren't their works in the public domain (regarding reproduction) regardless of who owns the original?

12/01/2006 12:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Copyright is complex and ugly. Copyright law gets it right -- what most people would consider, intuitively, right, anyway -- most of the time. But there are extreme cases where the law is wildly unreasonable. Google for Disney and copyright and see how much fun you can have reading about all the effort Disney's put into making sure Mickey Mouse is perpetually under copyright.

I think we can all agree that this is a complex subject with a lot of reasonable disagreement. For example, I just learned that it's illegal to reprint a letter someone has sent you without their permission in the United States; under U.S. law, the letter writer retains copyright of the letter, even if they send it to you. However, in Sweden, it's legal to reprint a letter from someone, because a regular old letter probably doesn't meet Swedish legal standards for a copyrightable work. The Straight Dope has a great series on copyright.

This is why I largely try to stay out of the copyright arena. I consider all of my work on the Internet -- reproductions of paintings, writing, programs and scripts, whatever -- to be public domain. I appreciate when people ask me for permission to use any of it (which they do, occasionally) but I don't require it or expect it.

Of course, it's easy for me to do this because nothing I do is worth anything. If someone were paying me for it, and there was a chance pirating would cut into that revenue, maybe I'd feel differently. I don't like to think I would, but I have to admit it's possible.

12/01/2006 12:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Peter at Artists Unite said...

I agree with Chris. And the last paragraph is poignant...and opens up a can of worms about what is valuable and why. Your friend wanting to put on Oklahoma, as something "valuable" could be contrasted with putting on something by my neighbor Eddie, who writes plays about high school kids and can barely get a reading of his play staged. Then, the transaction costs of providing customized rights can be high (as the V&A; points out). How do you provide a cheap way for a creator to interact with "good causes" where s/he might want to give you free rights? Pro-bono attorneys to look it over, free time on your hands to correspond, etc? Working within one's community could be a "small is beautiful" way to circumvent issues of copyright. Tap local professional artists. Win-win.

12/01/2006 01:06:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

How do you provide a cheap way for a creator to interact with "good causes" where s/he might want to give you free rights?

There's a concept called Creative Commons that I think deals w/ this issue. I haven't looked into it that much, but Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor who frequenly writes for Wired has written several books about it.

12/01/2006 01:19:00 PM  
Blogger highlowbetween said...

I'll echo David: "My feeling is that if the artist is alive, they should decide who can and can't reproduce their images (or perform their plays, etc.), and whether they want to be paid or not. If the artist is dead and the artwork is owned by some museum, who cares? I think that anyone should be able to use the images freely at that point."

As somoene who has paid for use fees - $75-$100 per image- its great to see this go by the way side. Its foolish on the institution's part because any capital is eroded by the effort to manage the process and hurts the overall access of the public. From the residual side, the money we're talking about here is slim for artists. What visual artists need is a cut on secondary market sales - an ongoing ownership percentage for evertime a work changes hands.

12/01/2006 01:40:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

They're two different situations.

Artists get money from outright sales, not from museum reproduction fees. But performance royalties are part of how a dramatist gets "paid." Yes, school plays are educational, but does anyone object when textbook writers get royalties? Or when the Hemingway estate gets royalties on all those assigned copies of The Old Man and the Sea?

I believe schools already get a lower rate than a professional production.

(Can you tell I'm a writer?)

12/01/2006 02:29:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I believe schools already get a lower rate than a professional production.

I think you're right. It's just that for a private school not to be able to afford the rights to the musical, my guess is the fees are pretty significant...maybe one fee for all works when the purchaser is nonprofit or educational makes sense. At least then the children would get to do something better than "Bye Bye Birdie" (which is what they had to settle for, and which the music director grimaced when telling me).

And of course, the copies of the play the students rehearsed from should be paid for, so it's not entirely parallel to the "Old Man and Sea," n'est pas?

12/01/2006 03:02:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Artists get money from outright sales, not from museum reproduction fees.

That depends on the type of art. Some artists create works for reproduction. And even if they didn't, if someone is making money reproducing the work of a living artist, the artist should be getting paid (unless they choose not to).

As far as the students, maybe they could just do a musical version of The Old Man and the Sea. Of course, everyone would want to play the part of the fish.

12/01/2006 04:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a member of Theta Alpha Phi, the National Theater Honors Fraternity (no joke!), I should address this:

And of course, the copies of the play the students rehearsed from should be paid for...

The way this works is you pay the fee, which entitles you to some number of script copies, which are technically therefore rented. In theory, if you have a copy of the play from Barnes & Noble, you're not allowed to use that to perform; you can only use the copies you've rented with your payment for performance rights. Check out a copy of a play still under copyright and you'll note there's a notice regarding performance.

Performance rights are a little complex, too. It's not simply a matter of paying a fee. The companies which manage performance rights (the names of which escape me just now) make sure no two stages within a certain area are showing the same play and balance various other restrictions, depending on the play.

Basically, performing arts are very different from visual arts. If a museum has a particular painting, they don't have to worry about any competing museums nearby showing the same painting, because there's only one. Even if it's a copy, or a serigraph, or whatever, each individual work is considered its own work. So these kinds of things don't enter into the equation.

Also, unlike the world of music, for example, you don't have to worry about getting paid when people cover or remake your painting: You can't get paid. Even if they copy yours, as long as they don't pretend it's yours, they own their own copyright. In fact, if you get posters made of your painting, the printer owns the copyright of the final poster, unless you specifically have the rights transferred to you contractually.

This is exceedingly sticky, and it changes frequently.

12/01/2006 04:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Rebel Belle said...

I steal from everyone, but I make sure I attribute properly. I don't steal from living people, unless it's a collaboration, and no one knows whose idea it was anyway.

I once saw an Andy Warhol which had Coke as its motif. The museum label stated that the image could not be reproduced without artist's permission. That's chutzpah.

Robert Indiana was totally screwed 30 years ago with his LOVE painting. After that, artists get smart and lawyered up. But sometimes I think the only ones benefitting from all of this is the legal profession and Corbus (part of the Evil Empire).

12/01/2006 06:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who or what is Corbus?

12/01/2006 07:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who or what is Corbus?

Corbis. An image licensing company. They maintain a huge library of stock images -- photos, illustrations and so on -- for which they sell licenses.

12/01/2006 07:17:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

Oy. I'd give up all my Writer's Guild rights to avoid seeing another school production of Bye Bye Birdie.

12/01/2006 07:51:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Lisa, wait until after the Academy Awards. You don't want to have to pay to get into the movies do you? They've gotten expensive.

12/01/2006 08:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I don't see the point of protecting that images from your art circulate once it is sold.

In fact, even before it is sold.

You want people to see your art and talk about it as much as they can. That will even higher the value of your art if it is widely known.

Magazines merely make a penny, + coverage of your art is FREE publicity.

Copyrights enter when people are starting to make money from reproductions of your art (like postcards) and you don't see a penny out of this. But the cases are rare. Who cares about contemporary art anyway?

Yes artists should decide how they are dealt with on this issue but I\m stressing that looking for the extra money you can make if a magazine print a repro in an article is kinda cheap. Maybe if you see it in a Spielberg film, it really depend on contexts.

I dream to be exhibited at Whitney one day so I can say to the guards: people are allowed to photograph my work. In fact if the Whitney would refuse me this right I would refuse to show there. I'm very politic about this issue, but in the contrary sense than most artists.


Cedric Caspesyan

12/01/2006 08:40:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Cedric, lately I've even been encouraging people to go ahead and touch my work, which of course is usually taboo too. But it's made of linoleum, so I figure if it can survive being a kitchen floor someone's finger isn't going to hurt it.

12/01/2006 10:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I love art floors !!

Some I remember: Matthew Ritchie, Jim Lambie, Assume Vivid Astro Focus.

I like it because instead of accepting its subjugation to architecture, art is really trying to infect it. I like artists like Jorge Pardo who use the world of design with the actual intention of making art. Inflecting design towards art again, since it so much stole from it.


Cedric Caspesyan

12/02/2006 06:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Art should NEVER be free. Images of it neither.


12/02/2006 11:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Deitch is in tomorrow's NY Times, Art & Leisure section. Huge profile of young male artist. The guy looks like an adolescent but he is 25.(in permanent adolescence???)

Someone is going to have a fit...


PS..I repeat: art should never be free, images of it neither, copyright your mother if you is not about art or what you feel. Your capitalist guilt is infantile. Don't be naive. There are a billion people out there trying to make a buck out of someone else's effort. Learn from Felix Gonzalez Torres. He found an excellent solution that accommodated his beliefs and his geography.

12/02/2006 11:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what was Felix G-T's solution? At his shows you can take those stacks of posters.

12/02/2006 12:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

MLS sez:
Your capitalist guilt is infantile.

It's not a matter of capitalist guilt. Believe me when I tell you, if I could make a mint off of my art, I sure as hell would. I have no capitalist guilt in that regard.

But copyright can be pernicious. It's one thing for an artist or other creator to reap the fruits of their labor. It's another entirely when copyright enters into the corporate world, where non-creative types continue to benefit from the creations of others for many, many years. Walt Disney's been dead for how long now? Or when it enters into families. Sure, I can see the argument that my kids maybe deserve some benefit from my work even if I'm dead. But my grandkids? Great-grandkids? Grand-nieces twice removed?

And then there's the question of the value to the culture. Disney is a prime, if over-used example: So many of Disney's early successes were based on the public domain. And now Disney Inc. is trying its damnedest to make sure nothing they own ever becomes public domain. If every image in your head is owned by someone else -- not even someone, is owned by a multinational corporation -- what will you build your art on?

We are the receipients of a vast, rich, powerful, and brilliant public domain -- the result of generations upon generations of blood and sweat and the lives that went before us. It's amazingly selfish of us not to want to give something back -- even if we had a hundred lifetimes, we'd never give back as much as we've been given for free.

12/02/2006 12:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

"If every image in your head is owned by someone else -- not even someone, is owned by a multinational corporation -- what will you build your art on?"

Excellent point, Chris.

I like to make work using already existing iconography partly in service to the general ethic of recycling (recycle, reuse/reduce waste). There is so much imagery out there, and in our heads, we are inundated with it, that there is quite enough there already - why clutter up the world with new imagery? I prefer to recycle, but not in the lazy sense of just using what other people have created; more in the sense of referencing and quoting from our shared collective cultural conciousness.

12/02/2006 02:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

If people can see my art reproduced freely 100 years after my death, why would I make it so hard for people simply living around me?

I think people who hold dearly to material and money simply never yet had nearly-death experiences (like I have).

It's not about capitalist guilt???
Nah, it's about making your work known the most possible so that your actual (fucking) work do sell at higher price.

It's making the difference between the rich and the poor. The rich pays for owning the art, the poor sees reprodutions in books, on the web, in their family photo album, wherever. I mean do really you want to be talked about or do you mean to reserve your art for the selected few?? That's also part of what you personally plan to do. I'm fed up with snobs and VIPs, all the posing and the so little hearts. Do I want to befriends heirs and the next Paris Hilton?
Nope. And the great voices of criticism are not able to buy art
(except the smaller pieces). So if I dream them to get the most art, to get their passions rewarded, I'm gonna have to make fine and generous use of repros.

Anyone who adore art hates copyrights because they always mean that the least people possible get to see it. Very annoying. That's not what I'm into this business for.


Cedric Caspesyan

12/02/2006 03:56:00 PM  
Blogger marseye said...

art:Human effort to imitate,supplement,alter,or counteract the work of nature.
nature;The material world and its phenomena.
Art is truly forever free..........
Not imprisoned or enslaved; at liberty
Not controlled by obligation or the will of another.
Not affected or restricted by a given condition or circumstance.
Not subject to external restraint.
Not literal or exact.
and although some will amount art
in a number,and dollars will exchange hands, history shows and tells the spirit of men and womens minds and hearts. Living on for future eyes, hands and words to sing and share forever, and those who try to hold and controll the winds of time,
will morn, and may even repent for keeping beauty back, in the dark, ages, from all our transformation to light. And unfortunatly, our children suffer too.

12/02/2006 10:15:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

copyright your mother if you can

MLS, I took your advice. I not only copyrighted my mother, I copyrighted your mother too.

So, would you like to pay with cash, check, or American Express?

12/03/2006 02:07:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Listen dear.

I tried to be funny with my comment about “copyrighting your mother” but there was more to it.

The artist Robert Melee (Andrew Kreps Gallery) uses his mother in his artwork. Videos, photos, and more, he even displayed her in glass box during one of his openings. Not the first or last artist to do it. I am sure.

I was hoping someone make the connection. He literally has copyrighted her.


12/03/2006 04:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Evergon (canadian) has done a known series of large photographs of his mother naked.


12/03/2006 05:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd copyright my mother only if I could then sell the rights to someone very, vary far away.

12/03/2006 11:05:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

I tried to be funny with my comment about “copyrighting your mother” but there was more to it...

Well, MLS, you were successful. I got a good laugh out of your joke.

As far as the other reference, thanks for filling me in, because I didn't pick up on it. We don't have any Kreps out here in L.A., and I don't think we have much Melee either, though I can't be sure. Like everyone else in California I spend most of the day surfing, so I miss out on a lot. But I'll Google Melee, because what he's doing sounds interesting.

I would never have considered putting my own mother in a glass box, but I do have some other relatives that that might work for. Maybe I'll borrow his idea. You can get away with a lot if it's for the sake of art.

12/03/2006 07:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Wow Chris you really hate your mother? That's sad.

David, not all artists deserve to attract the attention of a remote californian surfer.

That's like the big challenge.


Cedric Caspesyan

12/03/2006 09:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

...In fact I hate Catherine Opie, she's a cheater, she doesn't count. Ok?

Cedric Caspesyan

12/03/2006 09:39:00 PM  
Blogger kurt said...

Cedric -- How is Opie a cheater? I don't know much about her, but have been struck by some of her pictures.

(PS: Also asking because just noticed C. Opie = copie)

12/04/2006 08:06:00 AM  
Anonymous cnonymous said...

I applaud what V&A; is doing. And while I in theory agree with Chris, let me tell you something I experienced. I was working at the Met in NY in publications - everything sold through the Met. One of the postcards was of a contemporary artist's painting. The stock was getting low and I mentioned this to an asst. manager. Then we found out that the artist had given approval for a run of a certain amount, that amount had already been reached and the asst. manager said, get more printed, the artist won't know the difference.

The presumption at the Met was that the museum's profit was more important than the artists' wishes.

12/04/2006 11:16:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


That should be brought to Phillipe de Montebello's attention!

12/04/2006 12:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cedric sez:
Wow Chris you really hate your mother? That's sad.

I don't hate my mother. I just find her easier to deal with when she's not nearby.

12/04/2006 01:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

<<<<>>>The presumption at the Met >>>>>was that the museum's profit >>>>>was more important than the >>>>>artists' wishes.

But honestly if an artist would come to me and say "hey I don't want no more than 5000 postcards of this to be printed" I'd kind of think they are ridiculous. We're talking standard postcards, are we?? Not limited artbooks or prints. So what would be the reason to be like this?

If the MET hid the royalties that's another issue but control freaks do annoy me. I mean...That artist deserved the spank of another 2000 printed copies. Good for them !

(in 200 years no artist can control how much darn postcards will be printed of your art so would you please all stop doing art NOW, dear artists????)

>>>>Cedric -- How is Opie a cheater?

It was a joke: Opie is known for her pictures of Surfers so it would be like she's been in Cali and made all insider contacts thus bypassing the standard movements that would make an artwork reach the conscious of surf culture.


Cedric Caspesyan

12/04/2006 07:25:00 PM  

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