One of the thing I love about working with artists is that the very best ones are unafraid to speak their minds, not only in person, but in writing and (most importantly), through their work. Such is the case with Gwenn Seemel’s blog post from yesterday, A Business Model for An Artist Who Does Not Use Copyright.
I don’t normally repost someone else’s blog post, but I think Gwenn’s post is so important, and so good, that I have to repost an extensive quote from it here:
The artist begins her-his career in obscurity, honing a craft and making work that few people see. She-he is not making money from her-his work.
Slowly, the artist builds a following, showing more and more of the work publicly and beginning to make some money, either from selling work or from some other means related to the creative work she-he does.
One day, the following becomes a genuine fan base. At this point, whenever the artist wants to launch a project, she-he first turns to the fan base and asks for support. The fan base funds the project; the artist creates the work; the artist disseminates the work freely, without restrictions on use, commercial or otherwise.
The fan base that supported the project from the beginning still buys special edition versions of the media that’s being distributed freely because they love the artist that much. Additionally, more people become fans because the work is so accessible that it reaches many new audiences.
The artist continues crowd-sourcing the funding for her-his projects. She-he probably gets less exposure than artists who are promoted through the middle man of a media corporation (then again, only a very small percentage of creatives ever get the backing of those corporation and those who do are usually required to sign over the rights to the work to the corporations). That said, she-he is nurturing her-his relationship with the audience, building much stronger ties than are possible through a corporation.
The artist works in this way until she-he tires of the creative life.
This is how Gwenn makes her living, so she knows whereof she speaks. it’s one of the things that I try to help artists understand here at The Abundant Artist.
Intellectual Property Law is a Huge Problem
Technology entrepreneurs and artists have a great deal in common. It takes passion, drive, technique, and a great deal of creativity to thrive in either case. If you don’t have an idea so good that it consumes your every waking moment, you probably don’t want to be an entrepreneur, or an artist.
Because of the huge investment in time and personal energy that innovation takes, it can come as a heavy, heavy blow when you find out that someone copies your work and gets credit for it. When they are receiving accolades, money, and prestige for something you did first, or something you did better, it can absolutely crush your spirit. I’ve seen it happen to artists, web developers, software engineers, and many others.
Contemporary Intellectual Property law doesn’t prevent this – it encourages it. In NPR’s piece When Patents Attack, the Planet Money team explores the world of Patent Trolls – companies that buy up large collections of patents just so that they can sue other companies who produce technology that might be covered under these patents. This happens because US Intellectual Property law is so convoluted that many patents often exist for essentially the same technology, and these lawsuits can drag on for years in the courts.
The story highlights how large corporations like Apple and Google spend Billions buying up patents to defend themselves from patent trolls. A startup technology firm’s biggest nightmare is a patent troll coming after them – there is essentially no way that a small company can spend the millions of dollars it takes to defend a patent case in court.
Artists Are Helpless to Enforce Copyright
Just like these small startup firms that cannot sue large corporations, an individual artist is often at the mercy of litigants and large corporations. In 2009, John Unger, a well known metal sculpture artist, had his fire bowl designs ripped off by another artist, who then sued Unger to break his copyrights, and John had to raise money via Kickstarter to defend his copyrights. Another artist, who goes by imakeshinythings on Etsy, got ripped off by Urban Outfitters. There was essentially nothing that she could do, so she took to her blog. She raised a big stink, and Urban Outfitters pulled the pieces.
What about those artists who don’t have a big following, who can’t raise a stink against large corporations or who don’t have enough money to sue thieves?
Artists & Entrepreneurs Can Work Together
I’m not exactly sure how it would work (I’m no legal expert), but it seems like artists and technology entrepreneurs have an incentive to work together to find solutions to working around copyright and patent laws.
Gwenn’s comments above are a great start. She has shown that artists can create the life that they want, even if it’s unconventional or outside of the normal way of doing things in the art world. I would like to imagine a world where artists don’t have to worry about companies ripping them off because even if someone steals from them, it just reinforces their existing brand. I’d also like to see a world where large corporations don’t have to spend billions of dollars defending their innovations because of poorly written law.
Entrepreneurs and artists are the creative engines that are driving our 21st century world. In the USA, at least, traditional knowledge work, which used to highly valued, is quickly becoming automated, outsourced, and commodified. Intellectual property law, as it exists today, stifles innovation. Those creatives engines should be able to find ways to innovate around these legal road blocks and come up with a new system.
How would you create a career without worrying about copyright or patent law?