Do You Sell Originals, or Reproductions?

In the last entry in the “Photographing Art” series, Don’t Bother With Image Protection, I covered some reasons why I think that allowing images of art work to be freely shared isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some people want to photograph art, or download images of art, and for artists dealing with one-of-a-kind images, like painters, the benefits of this infringement can outweigh the risks.

The last entry was rather one-sided, however. Freely allowing copies isn’t going to be beneficial in all situations. If you are in the selling reproductions business, file sharing has the potential to eat away at sales. I can sympathize with this. I have made money licensing images for prints myself. As a struggling artist, I know that every source of income, no matter how small it might seem, is very significant.

How many image makers are in the business of selling reproductions? Photographers certainly are, but I believe that it is important for artists to decide on the main focus of their practice: are they about selling originals, or selling reproductions.
If you are in the business of selling reproductions, this series is probably not for you. If you are more interested in selling originals, please come with me as I take you through the weird world of infinite goods.

One idea of Tim O’Reilly’s that I try to keep floating around in my head is that piracy should be thought of as a sort of progressive tax on success.
If you are big and successful, there are going to be lots of pirates, and sales will be affected.
If you are small and still emerging, piracy is a way to rapidly expand your audience, leading to more sales in the future.
And, if no one is pirating your material, thats a bad sign: nobody wants what you are offering, even when it’s free.
If this idea is right, then knowing whether infringement should be seen as a concern or not is made very simple:
Just ask “Am I successful?”
      IF answer = “yes” THEN fight infringement
      IF answer = “no” THEN promote infringement

I’ve used these quotes from O’Reilly and Doctorow before, but they are good ones, so I’ll use them again:
“Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.”
“It’s hard to monetize fame, but it’s impossible to monetize obscurity.”

What is the bigger problem: piracy or obscurity?
What is more important: royalties or exposure?

I argued in the last post in the series the reasons why I believe that if obscurity is the problem, fighting piracy is not the solution. Piracy can be thought of as a form of word-of-mouth advertising.

To summarize the argument in one sentence, “unless you are actively selling licensed reproductions, why fight the spread of copies?”

A potential concern might be, “but what if I decide to license reproduction of my work in the future”. This is a valid concern, letting everyone have free copies now might prevent them from paying for copies later.
Making sure the only copies that are freely available are a fairly low resolution is one option.
“You can have a free desktop background image now, but if you make a poster from that image, it will look pretty crappy. Here is a nice high-rez print for sale. Just see what you’ve been missing!”

Creative works that are part of the free-culture movement or creative commons might be seen as a sort of public portfolio piece or career stepping stone. You let it go for free right now, hoping someone of importance will see your work, learn your name, and hire you for a paid project in the future.

Several years ago, I was talking to an independent film maker who made the decision to release a movie under a creative commons license. This generated a ton of unexpected attention and exposure, but no money came from the project. Luckily, it was a no-budget film, done out of a passion for film-making, so the lack of sales wasn’t seen as a disappointment. Who knows what that attention will bring to his future?

TED talks have exploded in popularity over the past few years. Part of this is the license. The videos are free to share, so long as they are not modified, ensuring that the TED branding is left intact. The more people share, copy and download these videos, the stronger the TED brand becomes.

Releasing something for free doesn’t have to be a death sentence for future profits. One glance at the figures for Nine Inch Nails’ 2008 release Ghosts i-iv reveal that with a dedicated built-in audience, free in one place can be used to generate some big sales in other areas, like really fancy box sets.

As a painter, a maker of original one-of-a-kind goods, I have an equivalent to the fancy deluxe boxed set – the original painting!

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Kyle Clements

Kyle Clements is a Toronto-based artist and nerd. During his thesis at the Ontario College of Art and Design, Kyle began working on his Urban Landscapes series, a body of work that aims to capture the energy and excitement of life in the fast-paced urban environment. After graduating from OCAD in 2006, Kyle spent a year living in Asia to gather source material and experience in a different kind or urban environment. His work is vibrant and colourful. Whether painting the harsh Northern landscape, or capturing the overwhelming buzz of life in the city, his acrylic paintings hover between representation and abstraction.

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