Beg, Borrow, Steal – Art, copyright and the internet

Image of the Vermeer painting "Girl With a Pearl Earring" with a copyright symbol drawn over the face

Image of the Vermeer painting "Girl With a Pearl Earring" with a copyright symbol drawn over the face

When Shakespeare plays were originally performed, it was not allowed for audience members to bring in paper for fear that they would write down and steal the plays. To counter this, furtive audience members would go to performances and each remember different sections of the plays, then meet later and write down all they could remember. Each section was then stitched together, and the works were stolen regardless.

With the development of the printing press, pirated material began to be spread rapidly. Action was taken politically to attempt to stop intellectual property from being copied or stolen. In 1662 the Licensing of the Press Act was passed to restrict the reprinting of material without advance permission from the owners. This act planted the seed for the establishment of copyright law.

An image of a printer with a computer keyboard "return" key overlaid

The internet is often compared to the printing press due to its profound impact on communication. The copy-paste conventions of computer users have made protection of any online material very difficult, and although some measures have been carried out (placing watermarks on images or shutting down Napster, for example), most art online is subject to theft with few obstacles. Artists, designers, writers and musicians can do little to stop their intellectual property from moving unpredictably and without copyright across the internet. Through torrent downloads, Google Image Search and sites like scribd or the subversive AAAAARG, music, visual media, film and literature are all open to fast and easy piracy.

And this is arguably a good thing. I have had conversations with too many artists to count about how to make money from art, and how to make art safe from piracy online. I would always question why people think this way about cultural produce – although money is necessary, there are many ways to make money from artistic work other than sale of work. This issue was central to many of the talks at this year’s OFFSET conference in Dublin, where speakers continuously highlighted how ideas will overcome any issue with art. The creation of great artwork should not be so associated with the generation of money, but the generation of ideas. There is also the massive benefit to artists of being able to experience works by others for the same cost as sharing one’s own work, cutting down on expensive research costs.

Copyright law was originally developed to stop people from profiting from the work of artists without the artists getting a share of the profits. The internet is propounding the idea that the arts should not be subject to the same systems of exchange and money as other areas of commercial industry such as trade. This is leading people to think differently about how money is made from cultural products, and is allowing for access to art from any site in the world. Yochai Benkler is a theorist who deals with this, and has placed his books online for free in the spirit of this idea.

A doctored photograph of musician Jeffrey Lewis showing some of his graphic art from behind bars
A visual interpretation of information wanting to be free – the photo features Jeffrey Lewis, musician and graphic artist, and strong believer in the DIY aesthetic. Link is to his web-page.

Stewart Brand famously coined the term “Information wants to be free” at a hackers conference in 1984. This egalitarian vision is part of a hacker ethos that states that information should move about freely on the internet, and that anyone should have permission to use or alter information that they find. This ideology can be seen throughout the history of art and culture, where many artists reproduced and reappropriated great works by those that came before them. And it is through this act of reappropriation (building upon what was already there) that art has evolved over centuries.

As dealt with in the last post on MUW, the hacker prerogative is to always credit the original creator and any following developer who has worked on programs that are developed in open source. Pinterest has developed a similar system that, although not perfect, allows users to track back where artworks originated from when shared on the site. This development has helped to create road-maps where artworks can be traced, and this is the key to the future of artistic produce online. This is particularly useful when dealing with ephemeral artworks – events or ideas that can only be later experienced through documentation.

A compilation of photographs of a painting of mine that changed constantly
A compilation image of one of my painting projects, showing a wall-painting that changed constantly during a 28-day period. This work now only exists in documentation. Links to my website.

People will always pirate art. But we do this not because they want to steal ideas, but because we want to spread them. Copyright law was one development in a long sequence that was designed to protect intellectual property. But constant developments including cassette tapes and photography has put pressure on these laws and forced alternative developments in how art can be protected. But I believe that art does not need protection. It needs to grow wings.

Great art is now spreading at alarming rates through viral internet practices. Art and communication are inextricably tied together, which is the subject matter of Oliviero Toscani‘s heavy-hitting film WART (below). Although the experience of art in its physical form (visual art at exhibitions or installations, or music gigs) is still vital, experience of ideas has spread and become more prevalent since the internet. The possibilities for art reaching a wider audience is striking, regardless of where the work comes from or how it is presented. The spread of cultural ideas is only a good thing. To paraphrase Shakespeare, all the world is a stage and all men and women players. The play that we produce depends on what we create and what we share with the world.

[vimeo 5742936 w=500 h=383]

WART from SUGARKANE studio on Vimeo.

All images in this post are my own and subject to copyright unless stated. I don’t mind reproductions, but please credit them to this blog or contact ( for more information. Part of this disclaimer may seem somewhat ironic in the current post – feel free to criticise but all criticisms will be ignored.


3 thoughts on “Beg, Borrow, Steal – Art, copyright and the internet”

  1. I agree with you, I don’t mind people reproducing my images as long as my work gets credit somewhere. I wouldn’t put it on the web at all if I didn’t want it to move around the web freely. I’d prefer it was seen than just sitting in the studio waiting for an art galleries acceptance. What I would be bothered by is someone making money from reproductions without permission. Its almost impossible to secure a website from someone who wants something free, unless you spend money on a secure site, or are a code wizard.

    1. Agreed re the making money point – it is a controversial and frustrating thought that someone else could use your work to cash in without even an acknowledgement. It begs the question whether some sort of signature could be embedded within the data of an image to show where it was originally sourced from.

      That said, I will stand by the idea that information should be free – I regularly reappropriate images that I find online, and most people will read books or listen to music without licence. Until now music and literature have gotten all of the attention because they have a larger voice (record companies and publishers). Visual art and graphic design don’t have that same sort of political tout, and I think that has led to the issue being less hotly debated.

      The only thing for the time being is to trust in the good nature of other people and hope that they will give credit where credit is due…

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