Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

Changing ideas about copyright

2009 . 12 . 03 - Comments / Commentaires (14)

Over the past two years, my ideas about copyright and its usefulness to artists has evolved. While I’ve always thought of myself as an open source kind of girl, there was a time, not so long ago, that I didn’t fully live up to my ideals.

Sure, I shared openly about how it is that I do what I do—both in the creation of my paintings and on the business end of art—by writing this blog and by being available to people who contact me with specific questions about their own work. But, despite these efforts towards embracing free culture and everything it implies, I remained a disciple of the dark side. I kept a copyright symbol at the bottom of each page of my website and I clung to a clause about copyright in each of my commission agreements and sales receipts.

A few months ago, I changed the copyright symbol on my site to look like this:

And I linked from that to this page which explains my take on the use of my images.

I did this because I don’t believe that it’s possible to moderate the use of my images and, more to the point, I don’t believe that I have the right to do so. What I do believe in is making work that’s so original that no matter where people see it, they’ll know it’s mine. And if someone wants to copy it physically (instead of by reproducing it electronically or in prints from digital images), they can certainly try. My paintings are more than the product of my techniques. Their value lies in how I compose them and in my own particular way of perceiving my subjects as well as in my relationships with my sitters and with my audience. None of these things can ever be replicated because they are so intrinsically me.

It’s with this in mind that I’ve decided to change the copyright clause in my contracts. It used to read like this:

The artist, Gwenn Seemel, retains the copyright in and to the work after sale and nothing in this agreement should be read in a way that transfers such rights. The artist reserves the right to use reproductions of the portrait to promote her work. This includes the right to display a reproduction of the work on the artist’s website.

But, I realized that what I really wanted to say to my clients was this:

The artist, Gwenn Seemel, reserves the right to use reproductions of the portrait to promote her work. This includes the right to display a reproduction of the portrait on the artist’s website. Should the client wish to create reproductions of the work, the artist asks that the client refrain from selling these reproductions and, instead, distribute them for free.

All creation is re-making. Artists can’t make something from nothing, and we certainly can’t produce anything of value in a void. We take from what’s around us, reinvent it, and then give it back in a new and improved form. Copyright law in the United States severely punishes this core element of art-making if there is someone (usually a corporation) who owns the rights to the work that’s been sampled and recycled. I refuse to have anything to do with a legal arrangement that restricts the consumption and creation of culture. 

- Free culture
- The un-myth of originality
- Steal this.

CATEGORIES: - English - Business of art - Uncopyright -

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(14) Comments / Commentaires: Changing ideas about copyright

-- Miriam Climenhaga -- 2009 . 12 . 03 --

I understand where you are coming from. Perhaps I am wrong, but I have rarely bothered much with copyright.  I put a disclaimer here and there, and I think I put a creative commons thing on my blog…but my feeling is that the internet is far too vast, and people are far too sneaky, for me to be paying real close attention.  I would prefer that other people not make money on my art, but I feel, like you, that they can never exactly replicate what I am painting anyway.  Your post here reminds me of one of my favorite print makers, Carlos Cortez, now deceased:

“When you do a painting that’s it, it’s one of a kind. But when you do a graphic the amount of prints you can make from it is infinite. I made a provision in my estate, for whoever will take care of my blocks, that if any of my graphic works are selling for high prices immediate copies should be made to keep the price down.”

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-- cory huff -- 2009 . 12 . 03 --

Interesting. So, if people were to copy your work and sell it for money without compensating you, would you go after them in court?

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-- Gwenn -- 2009 . 12 . 03 --

Miriam - What a lovely quote.  He was a man after my own heart!

Cory - That’s the point: they could never actually reproduce everything that I do.  If someone got good at my techniques and was making lots of money off of making work that resembled mine, I’d write about them on my blog and make sure that some of the people looking for that person’s work found mine.  To my mind, you can’t cage culture if you want to tap into its wealth too.

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-- cory huff -- 2009 . 12 . 03 --

Gwenn, if you weren’t before, this post pushed you into my “Artists to Watch” list. I’m really interested to see where this goes. Good luck to you!

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-- cathie joy young -- 2009 . 12 . 04 --

Still not clear on your take - isn’t the concern someone finding your work via the digital imagery and making print reproductions and selling them? Or using your imagery for some commercial purpose? You don’t mind if that happens? I can’t imagine that anyone out there actually tries to copy the way you or I or any other artist paints with enough success to compete with the original imagery.

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-- Gwenn -- 2009 . 12 . 04 --

Cathie - You’re right, my article could be less confusing!  I am talking about two seperate but related issues: people using my art in reproduction and people copying my techniques to try to make work like mine.  My point is that I will not try to pursue either kind of copycat through our legal system.  But, as I said to Cory, I will pursue them through other means that are in keeping with my concept of free culture. 

And, yes, there is the possibility of people trying to copy the way an artist creates.  Besides instances like this one, there is a whole market-full of knockoffs and other things coming out of Asia.  Though I don’t think that my work is going to be targeted by those companies any time soon, I wanted to address the entire issue of copyright, and that includes people trying to copy techniques.

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-- cathie joy young -- 2009 . 12 . 06 --

hmmm… ok. I guess I just don’t really think about copyright in that context because it would be so rare for someone to try and copy one’s painting techniques with anything close to enough success to propose any kind of threat. The fire pits - great idea - and easily reproduce-able. Not the same with a painting style. The portrait site you linked to is pretty far removed from being any kind of worry - as you mentioned - so I guess I am just still curious about where/when this has been an actual issue?

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-- Gwenn -- 2009 . 12 . 06 --

There are plenty examples from art history, the most famous being Han van Meegeren’s faked Johannes Vermeer paintings.  And, for a more modern take on what it means to copy an artist, check this out.

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-- cathie joy young -- 2009 . 12 . 06 --

I think your example of forgery (Han van Meegeren’s faked Johannes Vermeer paintings) is a completely different subject. Or else I did not understand that you were talking about forgery all along?
The second link is to digitally altered photographs. I am not seeing the connection to your concerns about copying a style of art? Anyone interested in art can see the difference between a Chuck Close and these digital images. Anyway - I love your blog. Very interesting stuff.

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-- Gwenn -- 2009 . 12 . 06 --

I’m confused now!  You were saying that fire pits and the like can be reproduced, but that a painting style cannot be copied.  I’m saying that, while I agree that a painting style cannot be entirely duplicated, it can be copied to an extent.  Van Meegeren and Close were two examples of a painter’s style being copied.

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-- cathie joy young -- 2009 . 12 . 06 --

Maybe we should have coffee smile I am not that great at making myself clear via written English.

I can’t agree that a manufacturer lifting the fire pit idea and producing it for sale is the same as forging paintings and passing them off as Vermeers.

The digital images you referred to are done using some kind of a filter. Are they being printed out and sold because that was not clear?

I think there is a big distinction between their “Chuck Close inspired filter” and ginormous handmade original Chuck Close drawings, prints,and paintings etc.

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-- cathie joy young -- 2009 . 12 . 18 --

Really enjoyed meeting you and our coffee talk.
Forgot to mention - you have the most amazing hands!
Something else I always notice about a person when I meet them besides eye color smile
(For those who have not seen Gwenn’s hands they are long, pale, and graceful and the song Green Sleeves comes to mind)

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-- cjy -- 2014 . 07 . 09 --

Interesting that someone googling my technique came across this discussion Gwenn smile

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-- Gwenn -- 2014 . 07 . 09 --

I thought the same thing! Funny little world. smile

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