Why is Copyright Important to Artists?
Copyright is an essential mechanism for how an artist gets paid and protects his or her work. Without copyright an artist could not make money. Copyright offers protection and stability that allows an artist to make art for a living, both while they are able to actively create art and after they are no longer physically capable of doing so. At that point, copyrights from younger years allows senior artists to continue surviving without benefits or retirement plan, both rare things in the art world. Copyright law protects work in the future and allows for the licensing of an artist’s work, which permits an artist to get paid even if he or she is not actively creating. These are just a few of the roles that copyright plays but its overarching purpose is to protect the outcome of many hours of creative hard work.
What is Copyright?
Copyright is a collection of rights that an artist retains over his or her created works. It is a form of protection provided by law to works of original authorship. Copyright applies to an "original" work, which means that copyright only protects work that is original and unique. These works, and their attendant copyright, attest to the skill and judgment of the work’s author. Such work must therefore show an independent creative effort and be the personal expression of its author.
What Does it Protect you From?
A copyright protects your original creation from being copied, mutilated, repurposed or used for advertising without your consent. This includes derivatives of your work, digital reproduction, and use across every medium.
How Long Does Copyright Last?
Copyright begins when a work is created. It continues for your lifetime and for up to 70 years after your death.
How do you Register Copyright as an Artist?
Artistic work has copyright protection the moment it is created. As long as you have a way to verify the date your work was completed and the work is recorded in a fixed form you are protected from having someone rip you off. You do not have to register a copyright for art.
Does my Copyright apply internationally?
Yes. Over 170 countries have joined the Berne Convention since is 1887. The Berne Convention formally mandated several aspects of modern copyright law; it introduced the concept that a copyright exists the moment a work is "fixed", rather than requiring registration. It also enforces a requirement that countries recognize copyrights held by the citizens of all other parties to the convention.
What about Abstract Work?
Some would argue that the work we’ve done in our Oracle series is too abstract and varied to be covered by an artistic copyright. Works do not have to be carbon copies of one another to be a copyright infringement, so even such varied work as our Oracle series can absolutely be copied in a way that infringes copyright law. Derivatives, variations, and mutilations are all forms of copyright infringement. A rule of thumb for copyright is, “Would the observer be confused as to the authorship?” If so you're probably looking at a copyright infringement.
Is Copyright Unfair?
Some people think copyrights unfairly limit others from creating. This isn’t true. Making art costs money and takes time, much like any other entrepreneurial pursuit. Therefore, the result of such money, work, creativity, and time must be protected or no one will expend those precious resources. If we want the fruit of artists’ work it has to be possible for an artist to protect his or her work and to make enough money to live and keep creating. Some may not like copyright, but it is still the best way to ensure that artists are paid for their work and to create a secure environment where artists will keep creating. More importantly, it is the law whether you like it or not.
Our Personal Experience Running the Concrete Cat Studio and Working as a Team of Artists for over a Decade
Concrete Cat is a studio made up of eight artists who take making art seriously enough that they have all devoted their lives to it. We pay our bills with art and we feed our kids with art. Each piece of art that we create is undeniably special to us and we will continue to work to protect those creations. It has taken over 10 years to build our studio into what it is today, along with uncountable hours, funds, and sweat. The work of Concrete Cat is distinct. When someone copies us it is painfully obvious because our Oracle pattern/series is unmistakable.
It is the responsibility of other artists to learn the distinction between inspiration and copyright infringement. Copying someone’s work is not flattering. It’s stealing. When the work of an artist is copied and the artist does not receive compensation it takes food out of that artist’s children’s mouths and destroys the secure environment that is necessary for creativity; it makes it hard to continue creating.
For artists like us (those whose livelihood literally hangs on the thread of creativity), the only justice you will find when someone copies your work is to bring it to the attention of that person’s peers and clients. The hope and intention is that, with enough social pressure, those who copy and steal creative works of art will see the error in their ways, apologize, and correct their behavior. That is our moral obligation as artists and if we disregard copyright law there is no secure forum in which to create and we have lost all hope.
The biggest issue that we have faced with copyright infringement is artists and studios that are small and think that they have “discovered” something new, alleging that they are unaware of our work. Make no mistake – being unaware of your copyright infringement does not make it acceptable. This problem with small studio copyright infringement is especially difficult to deal with legally because any amount of funds put into a legal battle is unlikely to be recovered, since the studios themselves are in no better financial position than we are. The best and first option for dealing with a studio that is stealing our work is to first explain our position and ask them to stop what they are doing. This has always been our front line policy. The second step is to bring the offensive actions to light in public. This is not something that we enjoy doing but is something that has increasingly become necessary.
When an artist knowingly copies work in hopes of leeching off some income or fame from the original artist, it degrades the practice of creative pursuit. These acts erode the sanctity of one's own work among the artistic community, as well as with public and private sectors. Why would a patron buy your work when they can get someone to make a copy? Why would a business pay for your licensing when other artists in your own community are stealing your work?
The Bottom Line
Although copyright infringement is a major problem that we are dealing with more and more, the situation can be motivating. It means I need to spend more hours in the studio, work harder, and dig deeper. It means I need to fight for my creative rights and creative works, which I will not hesitate to do. Despite this motivation, I also have a life, a wife, and two kids who need to see me. When artists steal from one another it makes life harder for everyone involved and quietly erodes the beautiful artistic community of which I have been proud to be a part. Let’s be our own kind of creative and not take others’ work.
*****Disclaimer***** I am not a lawyer and this article is not legal advice. When in doubt talk to a lawyer.
– Matthew Heide