Don’t Bother with Image Protection

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about reproductions of art, and why art can’t be photographed in many museums and galleries.
In part 1, I covered my teenage conspiracy theories about the prohibition of photography, while in part 2, I talked about learning the real reasons during my time in University. Then I switched gears for a bit and talked about image protection, listing some examples of bad ideas and good ideas.

In this entry, I will talk about the issue from a different angle. I will be asking something that should have been considered long before any time is spent on content protection schemes. That question is “Do painters even need to worry about infringement?”

I know, it sounds crazy. You might be thinking, “Kyle, I know you embrace the open source movement, free culture, the creative commons and all that, but this is our livelihood you’re talking about. Give it away! Are you mad?”
As artists, we own the rights to images we make; surely we must protect them, right?
Absolutely, we should protect our work, but I don’t believe that a blanket “All Rights Reserved!” model is necessarily the best approach for a painter to take.

Why Do People Want to Photograph Art?
I can’t pretend to know every reason that every person has for photographing art, or downloading images of artworks, but I do know the reasons why I photograph and download images of art, and I also know the reasons that my peers give when asked why they photograph and download art.

It’s easy for an image-maker to think, “these are my images, I have the rights to them, copying them is wrong, so you can’t do it. No photos!”, but it’s important to remember that the most important thing is not what we want, but what the viewer wants.
It is also the viewer who might one day become a customer, who might buy the work, and let us pay rent, and eat, and buy more supplies, allowing us to keep on going. So being a dick when they want to snap a picture might not be all that helpful to our cause.
So, why might a viewer want to photograph our work? What reasons would they have for copying or downloading images of an artist’s work?

1. Documenting
The main reason I take a picture of an artwork is simple: I really like it, and I want to remember it.
I see a lot of art, but I only really like a very small portion of what I see. It might be an unfamiliar technique, a unique composition, or just something executed far better than I am accustomed to seeing. When I come across a real gem, I want to remember it. I want to remember the work, I want to remember the gallery, and most of all, I want to remember the artist.
I used to make a habit of collecting show cards, but that is something I have moved away from these past few years. I found that it was a waste of time and paper. The cards would get put into a box and forgotten. Digital files can be archived and tagged for easy access in the future. I stumble across these digital images far more often, making them far more useful to me. Snapping a picture, or saving an image from the artist’s website lets me remember them.

2. Sharing
When I see a great body of artworks, I want to share what I’ve seen. I might know a gallery looking for another artist, I might have a group show in mind and want to invite them to show with me.
If I don’t have their images, I’m not going to remember their name or their work, and I’m not going to have anything to show the gallery or other artists.

3. Matching Decor
Some people buy art because they love it, some buy art as an investment, and some people want something to accent their home.
Some people want to be sure that the imagery matches the decor in the room they plan to display it. They want to be sure the colours in the painting go with their house. They think they want to buy, but they are not yet 100% sure. A really easy way to do this is to snap a picture and take it home. If the artwork in the picture fits with their interior design choices, they may return the next day and make a purchase. If they don’t have that picture to compare, they might remain unsure, play it safe, and not make the purchase.

4. Commercial Reproduction
Their is one final possibility for someone wanting to photograph art that can’t be ignored: reproduction.
Some people might intend to reproduce artwork. It might be another artist wishing to emulate a style or technique, and incorporate it into their own work, or they might wish to repaint what you have made. I don’t know of anyone who has had this happen to their work, or has a habit of actually doing this themselves, but it is a possibility.

Commercial reproduction is the number one reason I’ve come across for fearing reproduction. But I don’t see how those fears are warranted. Most digital cameras are really crappy. Cellphones and point and shoots just don’t take great pictures. The dynamic range is rather limited, making light that looks fine to the human eye look very uneven. This isn’t a very good argument because digital cameras have been rapidly improving for years now, and I don’t see any signs of that progress slowing down. Eventually, these crappy cameras won’t be so crappy. But there is one other reason why I don’t think commercial reproduction from photographed images is a legitimate concern: Most paintings in galleries are lit rather poorly for photography. A few halogens aimed at the centre leave the edges noticeably darker. This looks great for viewing in person; our brains correct for any unevenness in the light, and do an excellent job of adjust the white balance. Halogen is magic to the eye, but for commercial reproductions, that’s not going to cut it. Warm light with hot spots and shadows isn’t usable for commercial prints.
For good quality images, a DSLR is much better than a point and shoot. Bulky DSLRs are much easier to spot than tiny pocket sized cameras. Aligning the bulky camera with the image takes several seconds, long enough to notice what’s going on and put a stop to it if you wish.
Even if the infringer somehow manages to take the time to line up their bulky camera and take a good shot in bad lighting, it’s not really a problem if the painting is signed on the front. Your name is still getting out there, and at the end of the day, more people will know about you and your work.

Commercial reproduction, despite being the main reason artist’s cite for prohibiting photography, seems like a very unlikely possibility. It is far more likely that they would go to the nice well-lit professional shots on your website, or on the gallery’s website to get those images. I know of a case where reproductions were being taken from a book about an artist’s work. The pages were literally torn out, framed and sold as prints. Preventing infringement from your website is easy-upload low resolution images. But preventing infringement from a book? I’ll have to work on solving that one.

I’m sure there are reasons for photographing artworks that I haven’t considered. I’ve looked at all the situations I know about for wanting to snap a few pictures of art, and I don’t see any good reasons to prevent that kind of photographing and sharing from happening.
Having people documenting and sharing images your work is a form of word-of-mouth advertising. It gets your name out there, raising awareness. That can only be a good thing.
Having someone snap a picture to see if your work fits with their home may lead to a future sale. That’s a good thing.
Having someone commercially reproduce your work sucks. But it’s so unlikely that they could get a usable photo from a gallery, I don’t see it happening.

I believe the benefits from the former vastly outweigh the risks of the latter. That’s why I don’t bother with any fancy image protection schemes on my website. I have yet to be convinced that it’s worth the effort.

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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.