This isn't a trick question. This was the gist of an LA Times article last week. I was already sensitized to this issue by a tweet from Mark Meyer over the copyright of the Korean War Vets Memorial.
The comments in the article he linked to, made it clear that people have very strong opinions about things they know nothing about. Well, they are very ready to spout off without knowing any of the details involved.
There are legitimate arguments on both sides of this, and the tattoo example pushes this into serious conflicting rights, but when people start off just saying, "This is stupid," it's not a good sign. They have a gut reaction - which probably has some legitimacy - but that's just a feeling and they haven't thought it through enough to know if their feeling is appropriate let alone to explain that feeling intelligently to others. Often, it appears, the feeling was based on ignorance of the facts.
|My photo,* not the one in question, which is much better|
Below is Mark Meyer's original tweet about the rights to the image on a US postage stamp of the Korean War Vets Memorial.
[*sorry, I had the wrong link to the photo before.]
Such hostility toward copyright—everything that's wrong with the photo business is in the comments here: http://t.co/THulbUV5kC
— Mark Meyer (@markmeyerphoto) October 2, 2013
Mark is a very good professional photographer who lives in Anchorage. As I read through the hostile comments he mentions, it became clear to me that there are two key issues here regarding ownership:
1. Who owns the physical object (a sculpture, a painting, a book, a cd, etc.)?
2. Who owns the copyright to that object?
This has been an issue for artists. Someone buys a painting for $1000. Ten years later, the buyer sells it for $40,000. Should the artist get a cut in the resale value?
There's little debate that the buyer owns the object, but does he then get all the appreciated value of the object as the artist becomes known? I'm trying to figure out the underlying world views that separate those who think the artist ahouls and those who think the buyer.
The capitalist would say there was a fair trade, and now the object and its potential value goes to the buyer. After all, the artist had the choice of selling for that price or not. But did she? Perhaps her rent was due when the money was offered. And even though the object sells for $1000, she's only getting, after deducting materials expenses, $5 or $10 per hour. Of course, it's even much less if we count the time and money spent on her art school degree.
But it's not so easy. Capitalists also believe in copyrights and patents. Those rights are even enshrined in the US Constitution. That's why Samsung and Apple have been in court recently and why (legal) drug prices are so high. Drug companies argue that all the work that went into developing the drug needs to be recouped or there will be no incentive to develop new drugs. Though consumers might question how much of a profit and for how long should the drug makers get, especially when they own the patent on the only drug that cures a particular disease, thus leaving some people with the choice of paying (if they can) or suffering or even dying.
Doesn't the artist have the same claim to recoup the investment? Sometimes, according to the California Arts Council:
Civil Code section 986 (California Resale Royalty Act) entitles artists to a royalty payment upon the resale of their works of art under certain circumstances.
Those who would put fairness as their highest value would probably argue that the buyer really owes the artist a portion of the appreciated value. The law may give the buyer the right, but human decency requires the buyer to give a share to the buyer. After all, the buyer merely made a purchase while the artist worked hard and long to create the piece. But that too is an assumption. What about an artist who pays his lunch bill by drawing a quick caricature on a napkin? Or an athlete who autographs a ball? One might argue it's different if it's for free, for a fee, or in payment of something else. And one could argue that an art dealer, who spends a lot of time looking at art and buys a lot of paintings from a lot of aspiring artists, is making an investment to help the struggling artist, but also taking a risk. Most of those purchases aren't going to gain value and the winners help pay for the losers. And that putting the piece in his home or gallery will cause others to notice and buy art from that particular artist.
Open source advocates offer an alternative to the capitalist emphasis on individual rights and ownership. While capitalists advocate that competition and personal greed stimulate innovation and the economy, open source advocates argue that sharing and community spur innovation and spread the fruits of innovation better. They see copyrights and patents and proprietary software as obstacles to human advancement. This might explain the commenters who felt that the US government use of the photo of the Korean War Vets Memorial (the Post Office had the permission of the photographer) was a use that benefited the general public. I'm not sure how this argument applies to the tattoo dispute.
There's an issue here that you might notice underlying all this: power. In theoretical capitalism, a fair market is one in which both parties have the power to walk away from a deal they don't think is fair. A cancer victim doesn't have much bargaining room with a drug company if the company owns a patent on the only drug likely to save his life. (Though there have been organizations that have bargained for classes of poor patients to get discounts on such drugs.)
And power is an issue when we get to copyrights and patents. In the case of the artist who created the Korean War Vet Memorial sculptures, according to the comments in the article Mark cited, the US government (maybe the US Park Service, but I'm not sure; it was the Post Office that got sued) did not include the copyright when they signed the contract with the artist.
And that's the rub for many of the commenters. They couldn't, it seemed, mentally separate the object from the copyright for the object. Essentially, this argument says "You own the object for your personal use and enjoyment, but if you then market it to make a profit, I get a share in that profit." Arguments (in the comments) that the govrnment could have bought the copyright when they bought the object seemed to fall on deaf ears. So did arguments that they could have negotiated with the artist before commissioning the stamp. Mention of musicians getting paid every time their music is played didn't sway them either. The basic response was, if you buy it, you should be able to use it how you want. Especially the US government, which, apparently, made millions off the image in sales to stamp collectors.
Again, it gets down to power. How many artists have the power to insist on an extra charge for the copyright and then fight for their copyright, even when they have it? Only those who have enough knowledge and money to hire an attorney or can get one to take their case on contingency.
|Laotian Dragon Tattoo Shot With Permission|
Late last year, for example, Stephen Allen, a tattoo artist, sued video game maker Electronic Arts and former Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams over a tattoo Allen put on Williams' bicep. The tattoo appeared on the cover of EA's "NFL Street" video game. Allen claimed that the reproduction and display of the tattoo violated his copyright.There are a lot of conflicting values and rights that come to play in this. The contentiousness is only exacerbated by the commodification of everything. The sculptor wouldn't be suing the Postal Service if they weren't making millions off his art work. And the tattoo artist wouldn't have sued if his tattoo hadn't been used so prominently to market the video game. I doubt I have much to fear about my own use of my own photos in this post - of the tattoos and of the Korean War Vets Memorial - because I'm not commodifying the originals.
That case was dismissed in April at the request of the plaintiff, but because so many NFL players have tattoos, it got the attention of the NFL Players Assn. NFLPA officials began advising players to get copyright waivers from their tattoo artists. George Atallah, an NFLPA official, told Bloomberg Businessweek that the union recently cautioned its players: We know you love your tattoo artists, but regardless of whether you trust them, regardless of whether there are legal merits to the lawsuits that we've seen, just protect yourself.
I continue to be amazed at how many people feel the need to voice their opinions so strongly about topics they know so little about. For those who want to be informed when they voice their opinion on copyrights, Mark posted another tweet with a link to an article called, "Why Copyright Infringement is Theft."
Politicians sometimes complain about being targeted by interest groups based on a vote on a particular bill. They might argue that though it was called the Help Poor Widows bill, there were provisions in the bill that did exactly the opposite. Like most situations that become controversial, the simplistic first reaction often doesn't take into account the details. At times, we may have sympathy for the holder of the copyright. At other times we may not. It depends on the details of the situation. Unfortunately, in these days of tweets, most people don't get into those details.