As digital artists we are faced with the questions and concerns of digital copyright every single time we post to the web. Visit any social site where art is commonly posted and you will find ongoing discussions ranging on everything from steps you can take to protect your work, sharing information on known violators, what you can do when you find your work has been copied, what constitutes fair use of your or other’s work, to sometimes even whether you are giving up your rights simply by posting to the site. Fortunately on many popular sites like deviantArt, Flickr, and MySpace, your rights are fully preserved (although deviantArt and Flickr both provide the option of choosing a less restrictive Creative Commons license).
It is that latter spirit, the Creative Commons notion that “Creativity and innovation rely on a rich heritage of prior intellectual endeavor”, in which I ask you to consider a story that challenges the very notions of copyright and plagiarism.
“[Copyright] is taken as a law, both in the sense of a universally recognizable moral absolute, like the law against murder, and as naturally inherent in our world, like the law of gravity. In fact, it is neither. Rather, copyright is an ongoing social negotiation, tenuously forged, endlessly revised, and imperfect in its every incarnation.” – Jonathan Lethem, “The Ecstasy of Influence” http://harpers.org/TheEcstasyOfInfluence.html, Harper’s Magazine Features
Lethem’s piece is an exploration of the vital role that “plagiarism” has had on art, and the dangers that the ever increasing stranglehold of copyright law present to creativity and culture. Much of what he provides as examples lean more toward the fair use end of the spectrum than on outright duplication, however even in that nebulous realm of cut-ups and mash-ups he examines the strangleholds that large corporations and organizations are exerting on the creative and cultural heritage which underlie nearly every aspect of modern culture. He presents the notion that all art is a gift to future art, and ultimately argues that all art is drawn from and built upon things which have come before. He does not suggest that we should give up the rights to our works, but asks us to reconsider how far those rights should really extend.
[Originally re-posted from MySpace to deviantArt Aug 6, 2005]
I have a quote in my profile at deviantArt: “If you stop shooting beauty because it’s cliché, you will have nothing left to shoot but ugliness.” That is my response to the idea that pictures of sunsets and flowers are overdone. I had bought in to that idea for a while, and it made me question my efforts at those subjects. I almost felt guilty for posting pictures of “cliché” subjects.
The point of that statement is not to disagree with the idea that those things are overdone. There are people who believe that just because the subject is a sunset or a flower, that it is automatically a good picture. Not true. Anybody can point and click. Not everyone can compose a striking image. If that were true, the images I have on my wall here next to me – a butterfly and a frog, both by a very talented nature photographer – wouldn’t really be worth what I paid for them.
But this is much like the discussion over whether the presence of cheap digital cameras diminishes the value of the works of the dedicated photographers. Just because there are a lot of pictures of sunsets and flowers, doesn’t mean that there are a lot of good pictures of those things.
I do agree that one measure of a good photographer is the ability to take good photos of everyday things, but I don’t necessary hold that as a requirement when making the judgment. After all, there are plenty of people doing great shots of volcanoes and deep sea creatures that deserve credit.
I think the real answer is that there are two requirements for a “great” photographer. The first is technical proficiency. The second is the artistic element, the photographer’s eye. The second element is the tricky piece when trying to make statements about which subjects do or do not mark the work of a great photographer. One photographer may be technically proficient at shooting still-life, but outstanding at capturing candid street scenes. Another may do acceptable studio portraits, but excel at capturing the height of action at sporting events. In the end, you can only judge a photographer on their body of work, without prejudice for the subjects within.
Where do you draw the line on images which are clearly not the poster’s work?
Simply re-posting a picture and claiming it as your own is clearly a violation and reprehensible to boot. What about poets who use images, which often were the inspiration? What about the photo-manipulator who takes a copyrighted image and twists it? Does the ‘10% rule’ apply? What about the bastard child of photo-manip, the wallpaper ‘artists’ who throw a 1024×768 border around a magazine scan? Do you really think that makes it your own? Do you think that it excuses the use of a copyrighted image?
I’ve gotten sensitive to this issue since joining deviantArt. I know I’ve reported violations for images that I later realized were in the public domain, but I’ve also not reported images I was *sure* were copyrighted but could not prove. What makes it even harder is that there are some professional artists who post here, artists who’s work I’ve seen dumped en masse into the newsgroups. I don’t know what the admins do with violations; I have been notified when action was taken on harassment and inappropriate sexual imagery reports, but never on a copyright report – neither for or against my case. Not that I want or need the knowledge. I trust instead that they make the appropriate judgement and act accordingly.
I don’t want to be a copyright Nazi, but I get offended by people who put in little or no work and claim creative genius. I’ve borrowed work from the site to practice coloring or digital darkroom techniques, but I would never dream of re-posting those things. It’s practice, not art.
For similar reasons, I have pretty demanding standards for photo-manipulation and wallpaper work. I expect to see your work clearly, to the point where it obscures the original image. If you’re gonna do that work, then actually work at it; put in something original and make it your own.