Artlaw Services – A National Legal Service for the Arts

It is not widely remembered that William Hogarth, amongst his many other achievements, was the prime sponsor of a copyright statute, the Engravers' Copyright Act of 1735 – better known as 'Hogarth's Act' – which gave legal protection for the first time to works of the visual arts (books had been protected since 1711). I suspect today that it might cause surprise and even some derision to find an artist so intimately involved in the legal and political process as to have an Act of Parliament named after him. 'But is he really an artist?'

In Hogarth's case, however, his championship of a copyright statute was the direct result of his experiences as an artist. First and foremost Hogarth was an engraver, who later turned to painting. As an engraver, he continued to publish prints drawn from his own paintings. These prints were enormously successful, and they were copied by pirates' cheap imitations of very inferior quality. Not only did these pirated prints deprive him of much potential income, but they damaged his reputation as an artist. And so he championed the Act of 1735 in order to make such piracy illegal. Whether the Act deterred any pirates or not is far from clear. I have my doubts. It is one thing to pass a statute, quite another to enforce it.

I like to think therefore that William Hogarth would have welcomed the emergence, last month, of a new organisation which aims to help artists to enforce what legal protection the law now affords and which would cheerfully have assisted him to secure effective enforcement of the Act that bears his name. That organisation is Artlaw Services, which opened its new office in London on October 30.

Artlaw Services has its origins in a two year research project undertaken by Henry Lydiate, a barrister familiar to all those who read his 'Artlaw' column here each month. His report, entitled 'The Visual Artist and the Law', found that artists and art administrators face many legal problems which tend to interfere with their ability to create or show or sell works of the visual arts. These problems include not only the question of copyright protection, which concerned Hogarth so much, but also the problems of contract negotiation and enforcement, studio leases and security of tenure, tax assessment, the formation of charitable organisations, and many others. For a number of reasons, few artists or art organisations consult lawyers about these problems; never having been consulted, few lawyers have any experience in solving them; and as a predictable result, there is a vicious circle of unmet legal needs in the visual arts.

Artlaw Services also draws upon the experience of artists, administrators, and lawyers on the other side of the Atlantic, where the concept of legal services for the arts took root as early as 1969. For the past three years, I served as Executive Director of Bay Area Lawyers for the Arts in San Francisco, one of the 13 organisations in cities throughout the United States which provide specialist legal services to meet the needs of their own arts communities. Last January, at Chelsea School of Art, these two strands – the research project and the American experience – were drawn together at a conference of artists, administrators, and lawyers. After hearing the evidence, hair-raisingly corroborated by artists and administrators from the platform and the floor, the conference resolved unanimously that the legal needs of artists and art organisations in England and Wales ought to be met, and that some sort of national legal service for the arts should be organised here along the lines pioneered in the United States. A steering committee was created to implement these resolutions. Not quite ten months later, Artlaw Services has opened its doors to visual artists, artist-craftsmen, art administrators, and art organisations in England and Wales who face legal problems in relation to their work. We now offer a number of services:

  • free legal information and advice at the office
  • referral to lawyers throughout England and Wales who specialise in the law relating to the visual arts
  • an arbitration service to resolve art related disputes
  • educational programmes for artists, administrators, and lawyers
  • publications, model contracts, and other printed information
  • research on legal matters affecting the arts

Artlaw Services is an independent charitable body, shortly to be incorporated as a company limited by guarantee. It is governed by an eight-person steering committee of artists, administrators, and lawyers, whose chairman is Henry Lydiate. Its full-time staff are: myself (Executive Director); Adrian Barr-Smith (Assistant Director), a solicitor formerly with Rubinstein, Callingham; Janet Tod (Adminstrator), formerly with Spectro Arts in Newcastle. Our funding this year comes from the Arts Council of Great Britain, the Welsh Arts Council, the Crafts Advisory Committee, the Greater London Arts Association, the Gulbenkian Foundation, subscriptions, and other earned income.

Looking ahead, I foresee three major developments over the next few years. First, discussions are now proceeding with the Scottish Arts Council about the possibility of extending our services to Scotland. If agreement is reached, an Artlaw Service for Scotland is on the cards for 1979. Second, we take the view that the legal problems of a poet, songwriter, or musician do not differ significantly from those of a painter, and that our services should be extended as soon as practicable to all the arts. This has been the position of artlaw service organisations in the United States from the outset. We shall be looking at this very carefully next year to see how far and how fast we can afford to expand. Third, we have promised not to rely on financial support from public bodies forever, although obviously our reliance on public funds in the initial years will be considerable. We plan to introduce a subscription scheme which will, in combination with other sources of earned income, enable us to become self-sufficient within the next few years. Whether or not the arts community subscribes will depend on the quality of our services; and that's not a bad test of our survival.

I don't suppose that anyone who is familiar with the American arts experience over the last ten years would claim that artlaw service organisations in that country have ended the piracy of artworks. But I do believe that they have helped a great many artists to get on with their work by solving some of the legal problems that so often beset them. And I think that their advocacy of public education on the legal problems of artists, and in some cases of legislation to solve those problems, has measurably advanced the professional status of the artist as well as the legal integrity of the artist's work. If as much can be achieved in this country, then Hogarth's Act will not have been passed in vain.

Hamish Sandison
© Artlaw Services 1978

Hamish Sandison, aged 26, was born in London. He has law degrees from Cambridge and the University of California at Berkeley. From 1975-78, he was Executive Director of Bay Area Lawyers for the Arts, Inc. in San Francisco. He is the author of numerous American publications and articles on the law relating to the arts, including 'You and Your Copyright' (1975). 'Resale Royalties' (1976), 'The Performing Artist and the Law' (1976), and 'California Enacts Droit Moral and Droit de Suite' ('Art and the Law', 1977). On May 1, 1978, he returned to London to become Executive Director of Artlaw Services.

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.