Standing at the crossroads of what’s yours is mine

I have been talking for some time about the idea that the image of a piece of work is more valuable to the artist than the work itself.  This is a fairly radical concept for many in the arts, but it’s an accepted fact for most people in media, technology and marketing. This idea is the result of convergence, the merger of previously distinct technologies or fields into a new form, requiring new practices. What has happened in video, music, telecommunications and computing over the last two decades is an example of convergence. It has been happening in the arts for quite some time as well.  


Convergence is exciting, messy, disruptive, changes the way things work and the way we think they should work.  It changes the playing field AND the game. At the center of this discussion is a raging debate over issues of privacy, ownership of information and copyright. To the point, all of this will have an impact on the images of your work. Just to be clear, I am not talking about your work – I am talking about IMAGES of your work.  


Data – your data – is the currency of the 21st century. Billions of dollars are spent collecting it, and multi-billions are made selling it.  Who controls information about you, and who can profit from it is the new Wild West. This also has far reaching ramifications for artists and makers, specifically on the issue of control and right to compensation for the use of images of your work.


There has been a lot of talk about Pinterest of late. It is the newest shiny bauble on the social networking scene. Artists (some, anyway) love Pinterest because it seems to shower free attention on a lucky maker. We love free and we love attention. But nothing is really free and some of the more astute makers are already saying “Wait a minute… what’s that tucked down there in all that legal terms and conditions.


Pinterest has clearly recognized the value of the image of the object. Its business model and revenue strategy is based on assuming control over images posted to its site. This is demonstrated beyond doubt in their carefully worded Terms of Use. We saw an opinion on this concept (not the actual terms and conditions as stipulated by Pinterest) by an attorney who makes his living writing these kinds documents. It’s just standard procedure, no need for concern, according to this source. If you believe that, you haven’t been paying attention to what Facebook, Google and your grocery store are doing with all the data they are collecting on you right now – including photographs. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.


All this being said, we’re not particularly anti-Pinterest. They are simply one example among many in a trend that foreshadows much larger problems for artists. The trend is that a system, indeed an entire industry has developed for acquisition, distribution and monetization of private data. In this particular case “data” means “images of your work”. The problem is no system has been developed to ensure control, individual rights, privacy and revenue sharing from the use of that data.  If you think copyright law will protect you, you are woefully mistaken. Look at the music industry.


The closest we come to being organized on this issue is photographers, who recognized this trend decades ago. They organized to protect themselves and worked to pass legislation specific to their interests. By the way, do not confuse that with YOUR interests. There has been an ongoing and at times contentious debate over who owns the rights to images of an artist’s work – the photographer who took the image or the artist who created the subject matter being photographed. Current copyright law sides with the photographer, even if the artist paid the photographer to take the pictures.


Now that your gears are turning, try this idea on for size. The image of a work of art will be used to represent the item and the artist far more often, and be seen by a much larger audience, than the actual object ever will, its importance to the artist’s career is immediately obvious. Now consider that unless you took that photo of your work yourself, you probably don’t own it in the first place.


If that isn’t enough of a minder-binder for you, now Pinterest asserts that they have the right to financial compensation for the use of any image of your work posted on their site. All of this accomplished by neat legal maneuver signed sealed and delivered when you or anyone posts an image of your work to the Pinterest site. Pinterest makes repeated declarations that they have “worldwide, irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free license, with the right to sublicense, to use, copy, adapt, modify, distribute, license, sell, transfer, publicly display, publicly perform, transmit, stream, broadcast, access, view, and otherwise exploit such Member Content only on, through or by means of the Site, Application or Services.”

Just standard procedure … to take control of and make money off your images.  By the way, just because you can’t imagine how they are going to do it - they already have. Which is why they paid a lawyer (maybe the one on the other site) a s*** load of money to craft that very specific language.


This is where we’d like to bring your attention to another trend of convergence - social media and activism. It’s what you are doing right this minute, reading this.


Just as photographers and stock photography companies have become very efficient at collecting royalty payments and enforcing copyright control for the artists and photographers they represent, we need to start organizing ourselves along the same lines. Is there a role for the major arts organizations to play? This is certainly how things got rolling in the photography world.  


Many arts organizations are grappling with how to make themselves relevant to their constituencies in a changing world. A collaborative effort could harness the power of social activism to assert artist’s rights over images of our own work.


At the end of the day, it beats sitting alone in our studios helplessly watching someone else take control of what’s ours.  

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Comment by 2Roses on May 2, 2012 at 8:39am

This is good news towards more transparent and acountable sharing. A good example of how businesses respond to public discussion.

Comment by Elaine Luther on May 2, 2012 at 8:15am

"Flickr teams with Pinterest, releases share button for proper photo attribution"

Comment by Stevie B. on March 28, 2012 at 11:21am
Comment by Susan Walker Conta on March 12, 2012 at 1:58pm

 Royalties and "residual" payment is only fair. And good business. Actors receive kudos in the form of payment in this way for decades, as do composers. Visual art deserves the same. I do not have a "Pinterest" account and am really not interested in handing over my images for their profit. How very bizarre a concept. I asked someone about the music mixing that is popular now and wondered about attribution and royalties ... taking (yes) songs from a recording and creating a collage of sound. Are there royalties involved with that...the whole issue is complex yet simple. Credit (and money) where it is due.

Comment by Harriete E Berman on March 8, 2012 at 4:09pm

The scarlet letter of the 21st Century is the P for Pinterest.Pinterest is promoting blatant copyright violations, Pinterest includes Terms of Use that protects Pinterest without protecting artists & makers, and Pinterest posts Pin Ettiquette for attributing sources for the images and then does not enforce their own Pin Ettiquette.

Post this icon on your Pinterest site.

Honor other artist's and makers by:
1. Asking permission before posting copyrighted work.
2. Include a complete description of their work including the artist's name, and photo credit, (if appropriate.)
3. Pin and link from a reliable source such as the artist's web site or blog rather than Google search results.
4. Become part of the solution to the problems of Pinterest.

Comment by Harriete E Berman on March 6, 2012 at 1:34pm

4 Things Pinterest isn't Saying

This post describes some of the issues very clearly.

Comment by 2Roses on March 6, 2012 at 1:26pm

"Maybe in my case I shouldn't limit my portfolio to images (photographs) of things that I actually have made, and expand it to include images (renderings) of things that are just designs?"

That's a very interesting thought indeed Christopher, and the basis of the "made to order" trend that is making headway in both brick and mortar shops as well as online for a variety of merchandise including furniture. This is just one more facet of how images are being used in a rapidly evolving economy and global manufacturing environment.

BTW artists, just because you don't want to touch it, that global manufacturing environment touches you whether you like it or not.

Comment by Elaine Luther on March 6, 2012 at 1:24pm

I just did a blog post on Pinterest.  I joined briefly, but deleted my account after reading the links from this blog post by Kate Harper:

Comment by 2Roses on March 5, 2012 at 3:59pm

We agree Tom. Ignoring Pinterest is not the answer. Its going to grow and continue. One of the niceties that we have seen in another group we belong to  is that members watch each others backs. When they see an image from someone they know that is not properly attributed or misused they let the original artist know. Its like a big neighborhood watch program. Of course its not perfect, and it doesn't catch everything, but its an example of social network activism, and it is one way artists are joining together on an International scale to protect our common interests.

Comment by Harriete E Berman on March 5, 2012 at 9:44am

There is a animated conversation on Facebook Critical Craft Forum about this topic which you can find here:

There are also more links to articles and blog posts about Pinterest.

I will try to add a few more links to this post soon, and the next ASK Harriete.

The implications of this topic are far reaching.

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