Stealing from Chimps and the Orphan Works Act

Copyright Armageddon. That's what this past week has felt like. Judgement Day for intellectual property. Yeah, there's a whole lot of hyperbole flying around, and a whole lot of guts tied up in knots. Generally, I don't like talking law or politics on PaperCuts. It's an art blog, and I prefer to keep it that way. Unfortunately, some issues directly impact me and the work I do, like a shovel to the back of the head. First, Darren Di Lieto of the Little Chimp Society, a fantastic art portal site (of which I am a member) sent out emails warning people about "Colorful Illustrations 93°C", an art book created entirely from plagiarized material. Not much later, I heard that the Orphan Works Bill (you can download copies here) was back. A day or two after that, a good friend of mine found that her work had been purloined and used online without permission. This is bound to get wordy, so hang in there.

Now We're Ripping Off Monkeys???

The LCS situation is as clear-cut a case of intellectual property/art thievery as you're ever going to find. Some sleazy, possibly fictitious publisher ripped Darren's interviews from his site, then proceeded to go to every one of 93 artists' and illustrators' websites and steal enough images to fill a 300-odd page book. Which they charge 100 bucks for. Considering that most of those images were a couple hundred pixels big at 72dpi, it must be one great looking book (sarcasm alert). The story is way too long and depressing to fully recount here, and can be read over at Darren's personal blog, Apefluff. I'm just glad to see that some progress has been made. Oh, and DON'T BUY THE BOOK.

The Orphan Works Act of 2008

Back in 2006, Congress considered the first Orphan Works Act. It died. Illustrators and photographers breathed a little easier. Objectively speaking, there is a good amount of film, music, art and writing where the creator is (and will probably eternally remain) unknown. Current copyright law keeps people from using or disseminating this work, and keeps it buried in archives. It would be nice to put work that is legitimately "orphaned" back into the hands of the public. After all, art is useless if it isn't seen.

The proposed Act, however, would likely make the protection of legitimate copyright extremely difficult. The internet makes it only too easy to pass around an image, a collection of words, or a piece of music. Accidentally or intentionally, it can become detached from it's author's name. The Act calls for a "reasonable" or "good faith" search for the owner of the copyright. But who can define what is reasonable? Especially when it is in the best interest of the user not to find the copyright holder. The proposed fix for this is a sort of privatized registration system (yay! more money to some big internet company!). The problems with this are many. First, A large percentage of artists (visual and otherwise) are barely scraping by as it is. The additional outlay of, say a few grand a year to register every image, sketch and concept we create (after all, it's our concepts and ideas which have real value) would likely make it impossible for many of us to continue in this field. Next, while requiring registration is currently illegal, these registration banks will become the de facto source to identify whether a work is orphaned or not. Failure to register a work will, in effect, orphan the work as soon as it is created. In addition, the act seems to remove the heavy fines which go a long way towards protecting copyright today, and puts the advantage solidly on the side of the infringer.

There are folks who think we're all overreacting to this Act. There are those who think we're underreacting. Jeff Trexler over at Newsarama has written an interesting article documenting both sides of the argument. The Illustrators' Partnership has an excellent roundup of this Act and it's history (and their objection to it).

Blogging, the Internet, and "Borrowing" Art

Finally, and perhaps most complicated is the case of Papiers Colles and the images stolen from her blog. Not so long ago, I got into a discussion with a number of creative friends about the failure of current copyright law to protect us in the digital age. At the same time, the internet has re-defined fair use. The current copyright system is both too weak and too restrictive, depending on the situation. The majority of people involved with those discussions have chosen to apply a Creative Commons license to their online works. I use one on Flickr. Generally speaking, I don't mind bloggers borrowing my images (particularly when they blog about my artwork) so long as they credit me and provide a link back to my site. Just don't use it for commercial purposes. I also do not allow derivative works. I'm still ruminating on how to apply this to my blog and portfolio site.

The BIG question for artists is how to protect our work from now. I am considering a number of unpleasant options.

I can remove the large images from my site. This would keep people from seeing the textures and detail of the work, and could result in a loss of sales. I can paste a copyright notice on the artwork itself. It's an inelegant and ugly solution. Or I can continue on in the current vein, hoping that the benefits compensate for any losses due to copyright infringement.

I am beginning to envision a future where the only way for creators to protect their intellectual property is through copyright enforcers; big guys we send out to smash the kneecaps of image thieves.