Thursday, January 19, 2012

copy? right?

As today (Jan 18 in the USA) is internet strike day* - I'm posting my thoughts on copyright in support of the global anti-SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) strike 

One of the other things art-career-wise that I've been thinking a lot about over the past few months is copyright

(ahhhh THIS little image, created as part of my stint at Byron Bay August 2011
has already been used  - without seeking my permission - to promote a literary prize.....
guys guys guys - all you had to do was ask!

Like many other artists I'm unsure how to respond when folk race off with my images or words or what-nots and re-present them in other places (internet or other) without my knowledge or consent... Oh I'm flattered of course - I mean, how sweet is it that they liked my things enough to want to share them?.....

BUT I've not been so thrilled when my stuff is posted randomly without even acknowledging (or linking) to the source.... and I get totally miffed when folk TAKE my work and then pass it off as their own.... (and no I don't mean they make similar work or works 'inspired by' yours - I mean they STEAL your stuff)...

I've had a variety of experiences where folk have indeed STOLEN my stuff and passed it off as their own.... dating back to the early 1990s (when my work appeared in an Australian 'Vogue Living' magazine - credited to someone else) to present times (about 18 months ago my partner listened, mouth agape, to an ABC radio interview with an artist whose work was featuring in the opening of a regional gallery show in our state - the artist actually submitted one of my artwork statements as theirs, and it soon became apparent they had created a work identical to something of mine and passed it off as their 'original idea and creation' .... I mean - WTF?????????!!!!!)

things don't need to be this dramatic to be just as troublesome....

I'll bet pretty much every visual artist who has entered artwork in a competition or exhibition has signed some sort of form that gives the event organisers the right to reproduce their work in various ways and means (sometimes the fine print can be scary - I have friends who have inadvertently signed away their control on a simple entry form... and unscrupulous event organisers who have subsequently made commercial work for resale as a result... nasty wot?!)

'to the lighthouse' ephemeral installation 
Cape Byron lighthouse

and you have NO idea the trouble I went through last year to create an acceptable 'recording' agreement with Northern Rivers Writers Centre (in a nutshell - NRWC sent me their standard recording agreement designed for writers to be filmed - essentially their standard recording agreement would have stripped me of my rights to even take a picture of my visual artwork undertaken as part of my stint as artist in residence at their Writers Festival - needless to say - changes were made!)

yep copyright can be mighty tricky

On the other side of the copyright coin however is the increasing public loss of access to our shared cultural material with the rise and rise of the corporatisation of EVERYTHING. And of course it's not just (or even primarily) arty things that are at risk... think about the ramifications of one company owning the rights to all our food seeds (this is SCARY and it's happening right now), or another company patenting parts of the human genome (yep - it's happened already), or mon-satan (the misspelling is deliberate) who currently enjoy suing farmers and associated ag businesses for patent infringement when their GM crops (soy beans and canola in particular) spread to non-GM crops (bastards!!! on every level)

As I often repeat - I'm just a small arteest living a long way from anywhere - the issue of copyright infringement must be absolutely overwhelming for big name, big time artists (and I can't imagine the full ramifications of rampant piracy in music/film/literature)....

As we all know - once something is out there on the interweb, there's no controlling where it goes - and there's certainly no getting it back - the internet has made copying/duplication/reblogging/mashing/'collaging'/ sampling of any material super fast and easy... all this sharing and copying and re-creation is good and great and fun... and a bloody copyright nightmare!

what to do? what to do?

Should we visual artists watermark every photo? (Fugg-ly!), upload only itty bitty images? (why bother?), use right click disable? (easy to work around - take a screen shot and share a crappy version of the work instead), use spaceball gifs? (oh if you don't know what a spaceball gif is - its a transparent gif that is placed over your photo - when folk try to right-click-copy your image they get the transparent gif instead.... spaceball gifs are ridiculously easy to work around... hint - there's a 1mm gap at the bottom of the image that the gif doesn't cover....), become paranoid and stop making and sharing things? (now there's an effective idea... not!), resign yourself to rampant copyright incursions and graciously accept piracy? (ummmm????? eeeek - starvation days ahead) make work and make it freely available and rejoice in a new arty world order? (still starving over here...)

And here's where my own little copyright conundrum kicks into high gear...

I like sharing things - I'm happiest when I give things away - I'm not a fan of the corporatisation of art (or the corporatisation of anything...) I have no desire to be a multi-millionaire vacuous art star (puke!) But like you, I DO need to eat and pay my bills (the electricity mob don't take vegetables as payment... more's the pity). And I don't think its right at any point to TAKE something from someone else and call it your own....

I've met wonderful friends via blogging and various social media platforms (SU, facebook, twitter, tumblr, ning-rings etc) without these innovative platforms the internet would be a very different place and without these (free!) services my world would be very different.... I'm not convinced that SOPA will do much to help stop piracy (which was its initial aim) but will instead become a quasi form of censorship, and a tool for corporations to further erode the commons....

So here's my first step in trying a new direction with my web copyright

You may have noticed I've recently adopted a Creative Commons license associated with this blog. For those of you not completely aware of CC licenses - here's the crux of things in one sentence:

"With a Creative Commons license, you keep your copyright but allow people to copy and distribute your work provided they give you credit — and only on the conditions you specify"

My decision to go with a CC is an acknowledgment that culture only flourishes when we operate as a cooperative community. True, I've chosen the most rigid CC license (attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives).... but a CC license just reminds folk that its only right to link and attribute things correctly. With CC in place - all I ask is - when you share, please maintain a link to the source... it's the right thing to do.

*as Oz  is on the other side of the international date line, it wasn't really feasible to set my blog site to join the Jan 18 internet black out - if I coulda - I woulda!

follow these links to find out more about SOPA and the strike:

google action
protect the internet for innovators



  1. thanks for this. i've been thinking a lot about it in light of the craziness going on here, and really appreciate your weighing of all sides of the issues and their ramifications. plus! it reminded me of a story that i forgot to include in my book, about how i met a buddhist nun in korea who was also the victim of that kind of robbery (her art was bought, re-signed, and presented as someone else's in a grand solo exhibit). you're right that it won't stop, but that it is important for us to fight, to protest. even when the fine print gets so confusing.

  2. Ronnie, I read your blog often but have rarely commented (sorry for that) but this post really deserves a public Thumb's Up! Thank you for writing it - I can tell it took much thought & deliberation. Mostly I want to tell you how timely this is for me. I've been on a bit of mental rampage this week over the "stealing" ("borrowing"?) of images from my blog - those Pinterest folks being the worse offenders. At least 10 downloads per day. Although on the one hand I'm flattered they bother, on the other, like you, I wonder, "heh, couldn't you just ask???"

    So I'm in deep thinking mode about what to do. Your post has given me more leaven for the bread. I'm still not sure what will transpire my rampage but changes are certainly afoot...

    Thanks again for this very wonderful - and helpful - post. On we go!


  3. P.S. and as luck would have it, my word verification for my comment above was "frecrop" - HA!

  4. you've nailed it very well, i think.
    i've lost count of the times i've found my images in odd places, or where people have cheerfully photographed pages from my books and put great chunks up on their sites. well-intentioned, some of it [as reviews] but others i'm not so sure about.
    and LOTS of folks presenting techniques i've invented as their idea with instructions etc...except that i'm not so silly i can't recognise my own "turns of phrase".

    there was an artist in England who after attending a class with me created "dye worksheets" and put them up as pdfs [on the net] signed copyright and tagged "devised by _____[insert name]". Murdoch Books had their legal counsel send her a kind letter.
    and there's a plant-dye textile business in northern NSW producing similar work to mine. i have no problem with that, many people do so since i've published the tricks, it's what happens. but when i open a magazine and read an article about them and the words are literally how i describe my work and experience of making, then my vision does tend to develop a bit of red spotting around the peripherals.

    it's tricky. in this whirled we have to put ourselves on the line if we want to work/eat/pay bills. as you say, the Electricity Company won't accept veggies.

    thanks for opening the discussion

  5. Very well stated. I've gone the CC license route myself. I almost always give permission on my photos with attribution, but it really bugs me when I find them out there and I have not done so. So far my other artwork has not been copied, as far as I know. SOPA was badly written and a good example of overreach. Something should be done but not at the expense of free speech.

  6. good thinking here. it's happened to me, and as someone with few internet skills, i was puzzled and a bit "stuck" (as in what do i do?) i deliberately don't publish my best photos of finished work on the blog. works in progress, i do. i don't know what i will do when/if i build a proper website. there is wonderful sharing in this community, i notice three writers here whose work and thinking have "fertilized" my own. it seems to me it often comes down to good manners, and corporations seem to have the worst manners of all (besides politicians).

  7. Its very easy to be casual until one is stung.... then, how it riles!
    We are in a dodgy world I reckon Ronnie when it comes to this issue.
    MInd you... I am amazed how often art dealers go to court charged with selling the same art works several times... and for whopping big prices! Known dealers courting a public profile... wanting ongoing serious business.
    Seems to me that although there might be some downright crooks and idiots out there... some might get a wakeup and not want to be so careless again if they were to get a notice directly... have it pointed out how it is infringing on another.

    ON a good note... there was a very simple, small image of a lotus that Mexican Illustrator Geninne .... (I've forgotten her surname) created... it was included in a post I did, with her full permission, 3 yrs ago. Because Apartment Therapy in LA picked up this post, got my permission and gave credit to me, then referred it on I have a huge lot of visits to that post. YOu have no idea show many people have written to me to get permission to use Gennine's image because they've assumed me the owner via google. Every time I tell, its not mine... go to Gennine and ask her please. They've been polite and taken time to get to me... and I thank them for it.
    I am horrified that a literary festival could not be bothered... and magazines... well yes ...I dealt with that one in the 90's when I had a shopfront in Melbourne!

    In 2010 I found I kept coming up against things that had an all too familiar look or sound to them... and when I read on a local blog someone was suddenly starting a project with similar aims to my very publicly stated one I was horrified. This person had tried to come and pick my brains...but their manner has not been right form the start.
    Its not uncommon for people to be working in the same turf...but when the wording, imagery or direction are too certainly sits up!
    Mind you their project seemed to run out of steam quite quickly.

    I find the more complex the work I do there's a decrease in how easily it can be accessed compared to years ago when i did work with much more broad appeal ... I seemed to be more of a target then thats for sure.
    But half the time we may quite easily not even know!
    great post Ronnie... Go strong! Interestingly... one is never too remote or isolated when it comes to being subject to this kind of scenario!

  8. Sweetpea sent me here (yay!) because I too am an oft-pirated artist. One that still sticks in my craw was a student who made copies of my handout and put them in kits (I HATE kits!) as her own, selling them wholesale... not one changed word, plus all my drawings. But here's the thing, I was already on to the next phase of my art and teaching. I'm going to write a post on this subject later today. In the meantime, thanks so much for yours! I'm glad to know about CC. And I agree with you about SOPA.

  9. I find that most people, often unless they've had work commercially published themselves, have little understanding about copyright issues. The mind boggles at some of what I've heard from people I know who really should know better.

    Although the things you described are just plain nefarious. Ugh! I only once--that I know of--had someone present my exact words as her own in the press, and it was a pretty lousy feeling. But peanuts compared to your lousy experiences.

    And thanks for the warning about exhibition waivers. I'd never heard of that. It seems like just when you think things can't get any slimier...!

    Yet, as you note, it is indeed complicated. This was such a good, well-rounded post on such a difficult topic.

    I'm also heartened by the support from the Australians I know against SOPA and PIPA. We leery Americans appreciate the moral support!

  10. Thanks for the post Ronnie - you have had a couple of shockers as experiences go. To the best of my knowledge (and it's possibly because I don't know where to look or how to find out) I have not been 'used' in the same way. All of the examples are terrible and bad. I like the creative commons approach - like you I think we grow by sharing and learning; but not by stealing. I think the net is scary with regard to how quickly things can leave your hands and be gone and you de-identified as the owner/maker/producer; but we have to find ways to deal with.

  11. Amen. You put into words my own sentiments. I have had a creative commons license on my blog since I started (i don't have the readership or the issues with theft you do, by far) but I do think I have usually gotten attribution when i'm quoted or a blog post is linked.


thanks for all your lovely comments - your words are greatly appreciated xx