Technology vs Copyright

May 1994 sees the launch of the Crafts Council Picture Bank – the first publicly accessible computer library of contemporary craftwork. Visitors will be able to walk into the Crafts Council, sit down at one of the two computer terminals and see any or all of the 35,000 photographs of craftworks stored on the system. For a modest fee they will be able to take away a print-out of their selected images plus the relevant bibliographies.

The Crafts Council’s initiative is not unique. By the end of 1994 electronic picture libraries will be well established in the UK art world, in Leeds, Axis is working on a pilot national contemporary art database and hopes to open it to the public in September. In Edinburgh, the Scottish Arts Council will launch its computer Index of Visual Art and Craft this summer. Further afield Artline, based in Dublin, aims to provide ‘on-line’ arts information throughout Europe.

Initially the public will be able to use these electronic picture libraries in only two ways: either by actually going and using one of the very limited number of terminals themselves or by writing in with an enquiry, but this is only the beginning. All the organisers are aiming high and plan to use new technology to reach more and more people. CD-ROMs (compact discs which store visual images) of picture libraries will soon be available for purchase. Looking to the future, individuals may soon have access to these picture libraries from the comfort of their own homes and offices via ‘on-line’ computer networks linked to their own desktop computers.

Potentially, these computer data bases offer much to the artists, photographers and makers whose works are included. The systems are easy to use, fun, informative and should provide excellent publicity; after all few people want to spend hours looking at slides when, at the touch of a button, they can see the same images on a computer screen.

Computer picture libraries are only the tip of a huge iceberg in which art and technology are being combined in new ways. In the educational field millions of pounds are being spent developing multimedia educational systems; in the publishing field electronic books are being produced and software producers themselves are demanding artwork to make their programmes look better. Artists too are using new technology to create artwork – for example the ‘From Silver to Silicon’ project based at Artec.

These developments have enormous legal implications. The ‘new technologies bring great opportunities, but they also bring risks in the shape of increased potential for copyright infringement. In a world where a person in Taiwan can sit at a computer terminal and print out images from a database in Yorkshire, copyright is hard to control. How would the artist know that their work is appearing on the tee-shirts of thousands of Taiwanese? Computer technology also allows artworks to be copied from a CD-ROM or database and altered without the knowledge, never mind permission, of the artist and photographer.

Certain people, such as Jean-Francois Verstrynge (of the European Commission), fear that if copyright owners (including artists) do not react appropriately to the challenges of new technology, copyright law itself could be dead within 30 years and, with it, economic protection for artists. Some artists using computer technology to copy and collage images think the fall of copyright law would be no bad thing. Whether copyright should survive the onslaught of new technology is one of the two main legal issues raised. More prosaic is the question of what sort of contracts should artists and photographers demand for the use of their work by producers of multimedia products. Both of these issues were discussed at a conference hosted by Axis on March 3 1994.

There are three main areas which artists should be aware of when making a contract allowing the use of their copyright (i.e. a licence) in computer picture libraries and other computer projects. They are: proper payment, prevention of piracy (i.e. the stealing of their artwork) and protection of their artwork and reputation (e.g. making sure that the original cannot be tampered with or changed, making sure that their name will always appear). There is much which can be done to protect the copyright of artworks stored on computer databases. The computer print-outs can be watermarked to prevent unauthorised copying of the print-outs, the print-outs supplied to the public should be of reference quality only, devices (audit trailing) can be included within a system to record when and who views them and prints out a particular image so that artists know who has seen their work.

Artists should be cautious when entering into licences allowing the use of their work; they should be careful about exactly for what they give permission. The whole area of the licensing of artwork for use in technology is still very new; open and good practice has yet to be established. Even organisations like the Scottish Arts Council, which is keen to protect and promote artists and copyright, say it will need to review and improve its contracts with artists whose work has already been entered into the computer picture libraries. Axis says that, on the advice of DACS (Designers and Artists Copyright Society), it is reviewing its contracts.

DACS, while very eager to help, has itself limited resources. When entering into licences artists should think about, ask about and make sure the contract covers such things as the quality of the final product, whether audit trailing devices are to be used, whether users will be told that the work is for reference only and not to be copied, whether the artists’ name will be displayed, whether the licence is exclusive (i.e. the artist cannot grant a licence to anyone else) and exactly what can be done with the images. Artists should not enter blindly into these contracts, but should ask questions, negotiate and if need be ask for advice.

Copyright law was first developed in an age where copying visual images was difficult, laborious and consequently quite easy to control. All this has now changed. DACS believes that visual artists will probably have to develop a system of ‘blanket licensing’ to cover the copying of their work by computers. Blanket licensing is already used in other fields – for example blanket licensing allows people to photocopy parts of books; without the blanket licence the authors’ copyright would be infringed.

It does seem likely that copyright law will survive the upheaval caused by new technology, but the visual arts copyright system of the 21st Century may look very different to the one which we have today. Artists now should be thinking, talking and deciding what sort of legal protection will serve them best.

© Henry Lydiate 1994

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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.