Does copyright law turn art into commodities? part 1: an answer with help from Albrecht Dürer, ARTICLE19, Salman Rushdie and Anthony Storr

Artists who can control copying with copyright have more creative freedom - photograph by

Artists who can control copying with copyright have more creative freedom
– photograph by

Albrecht Dürer: self-portrait, aged 13

Albrecht Dürer: self-portrait, aged 13

How does newness enter the world?

Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie, 2012

Dear Copyright-Haters,

How about picketing Tupperware?  Yes, … we are perfectly serious. Imagine the Facebook updates of yourselves holding giant sock-it-to-‘em placards shouting, ‘STOP COMMODIFICATION NOW!’ … What’s that? … Right. How, you ask, would you store your left-over microwaveable meals in this post-cooking age without plastic boxes so much alike that, even with brand names, they are virtual commodities? You could try porcelain bowls covered with plates or tin foil for an alternative – but no, you say, no one does that any more … muttering to yourselves, inaudibly, ‘Idiot!

We’ve been hearing that you hate commodification. After last week’s post with Jaron Lanier warning about the consequences for other professions of destroying artists’ rights to control the use of their work, a friend emailed us to say that enemies of copyright are not playing Scrooge when you refuse to contribute even micropayments to enjoy art. (Most of you agree merrily with, eg., the blithe prediction by the editor of Wired: ‘ I think most music will soon be free, …’).

The problem, this friend explained, is that you fear the commodification of the arts. We have heard similar thoughts expressed as, more or less, this: ‘Why should a musician get to charge every time he or she sells a replica of a single performance on cheap plastic CDs over and over again – and get obscenely rich from the proceeds, in some cases?’ Well. Just as a thought experiment, how about putting music CDs lower down on your hit list and starting with obvious horrors – those containers made of processed petroleum, clogging landfill in their millions? One day last month, Tupperware’s share price went rocketing into the heavens – hitting ‘a new 52-week high,’ we noticed. Now, that’s encouragement for commodification!

Why pick on artists instead of finding some way to hijack the profits from  (comparatively) mindless replication elsewhere? The new digital technologies were supposed to relieve some of the pain and hardship behind the centuries-old ‘starving artist’ cliché. They introduced the possibility of financial independence for more artists than ever before — linked to their ability to control how they work, and own the results. By, for instance, recording and distributing their own musical performances; or publishing or exhibiting their e-books, paintings, sculpture, and so on.

On the blog of The New York Review of Books, there is a perfect example from medieval Europe of an artist using new technology as an aid and spur to artistic independence, creativity and an evolutionary leap in drawing and painting. About the sublime German, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), whom the Wikipedia reasonably pegs as ‘the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance,’ the NYRB blogger Andrew Butterfield writes:

Dürer was perhaps the first artist in history to work primarily at his own direction, rather than on commission and at the pleasure of princes and other exigent patrons. The change was made possible by his concentration on printmaking rather than painting as his main artistic and commercial endeavor. Most paintings of this time, such as altarpieces, were made for well-established religious or civic purposes, and the patrons and other viewers had specific needs and strong expectations regarding both what was depicted and how it was represented. But printmaking was a completely new medium, little beholden to tradition. Even when treating Biblical themes, Dürer was comparatively free to pursue a more personal investigation of subject matter.

The painters of Dürer’s time who specialised in portraiture worked like – shall we say, analogue precursors of photo-editing software, who did all the retouching in the act of image-creation rather than after it. The most talented of them could grow rich themselves by following the conventions for flattering their powerful, wealthy subjects in oils – but with their creativity as constrained as the ‘lotus feet’ tortured into existence by foot-binding. Printmaking allowed Dürer  to flout those rules to develop an entirely new, realistic style in portraiture:

Typically portraiture was honorific and meant to represent the exemplary virtues of the person shown; Dürer instead often sought to capture the idiosyncratic and psychological characteristics of the people he portrayed. He was fascinated with the close scrutiny of dark and brooding emotion.

The Wikipedia explains the effect of his independence:

Dürer exerted a huge influence on the artists of succeeding generations, especially in printmaking, the medium through which his contemporaries mostly experienced his art, as his paintings were predominately in private collections located in only a few cities. His success in spreading his reputation across Europe through prints were undoubtedly an inspiration for major artists such as Raphael, Titian, and Parmigianino, all of whom collaborated with printmakers in order to promote and distribute their work.

Copyright laws were one invention that accompanied the replication that the printing press and printmaking introduced. Before reproducibility could be taken for granted, only the wealthy could afford to adorn their walls with the work of painters; after it, peasants could have their own woodcuts of saints and angels.

This makes your association of copyright with elitism, o copyright-smashers – and your attempts to cast artistic ownership as stifling or destructive of creativity — alarmingly batty, to say the least.

ARTICLE19’s excellent prescriptions for bloggers’ rights — putting them on a par with those of professional journalists — were recently the subject of a post in this spot. This same organisation has also made thoughtful recommendations for the evolution of copyright laws in another paper. Perfectly in keeping with what copyright allowed Durer to do, this document says:

Freedom of expression and copyright are complementary inasmuch as the purpose of copyright is the promotion of literary, musical and artistic creativity, the enrichment of cultural heritage and the dissemination of knowledge and information goods to the general public.

Some of us can only pray that protecting copyright as its rules are revised for the digital age will free arts workers from paymasters. From the domain of musical composition, the psychologist Anthony Storr offers in The Dynamics of Creation (1972) an elegant example of what financial dependence costs creativity:

Some very good music has been written for film … but the limitations imposed by having to tie the music strictly to the action means that the composer cannot choose for himself a vital dimension of the composition, its length. Most composers, therefore, rate film music as ‘incidental’ music, and separate it sharply from original compositions which truly reflect their own creative personality.

… In the last few days, we have learnt from Salman Rushdie’s riveting autobiography, Joseph Anton, about ARTICLE19’s crucial support in his years of enforced hiding from assassins trying to carry out his death sentence, the Iranian fatwa. Curiosity about this organisation’s backers led us to discover that these include Britain’s Foreign Office, the Department for International Aid (DFID) / UKAID, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the European Commission, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Open Society Institute (OSI), the Ford Foundation, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and in Silicon Valley, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

That was a real comfort – knowing of the existence of an organisation with international financing that advocates both blogging as a form of free speech and copyright protection.

Now about your Tupperware march …

… over to you,


5 thoughts on “Does copyright law turn art into commodities? part 1: an answer with help from Albrecht Dürer, ARTICLE19, Salman Rushdie and Anthony Storr

  1. I just read (parts of) the ARTICLE 19 paper you linked to, and the principles appear sound. If they were used in practice, I imagine most of the controversy around copyright would die out. At least my objections would disappear, and I suspect others more deserving of the ‘copyright-hater’ title would soon give up for lack of interest.

    “This makes your association of copyright with elitism, o copyright-smashers – and your attempts to cast artistic ownership as stifling or destructive of creativity — alarmingly batty, to say the least.”

    Perhaps “artistic ownership” could be changed to “copyright protection/enforcement” — it’s not necessarily copyright as such that necessitates bad effects.

    From the ARTICLE 19 paper (page 5, part of the preamble):
    “Aware that copyright has been increasingly used to discourage
    creativity and stifle free expression and the free exchange of
    information and ideas in order to protect exclusive proprietary
    interests, at the expense of the wider public interest;”

    (optional paragraph)
    The paper mentions abusive claims of online copyright infringement and the chilling effect this has on the right to freedom of expresson (11.3), making me think of (coop effort of prominent law schools and the EEF) that among other things keeps track of DMCA takedown requests to Google. I scrolled through one of those documents a couple of days ago, and was quite surprised to see that the allegedly infringing link list for a particular work contained a large number of links that appeared entirely unrelated to the work in question. Apparently swift and illegitimate content takedowns happen even to blogs:

    Sorry for digressing.


    ARTICLE 19 principles on the horizon?

    Oh, I was about to say that the principles of ARTICLE 19 are attractive, but I doubt copyright holder organizations will see it that way. I think in effect the principles would make prosecuting copyright infringers economically infeasible — they wouldn’t be able to target intermediaries such as search engines or ISPs, and in case of trial the damages would be focused on actual damages, and not disproportionate statutory damages. If every lawsuit went like Capitol v. Thomas did, then perhaps it would make sense to prosecute every other citizen or so, but that wouldn’t work very well with copyright’s raison d’être as outlined by the ARTICLE 19 paper nor with the principles about damages.

    If lawsuits aren’t viable in the long run, people will probably not respect the law (if it conflicts with their moral intuition). ARTICLE 19 and supporters probably don’t have enough political influence compared to copyright-centric entertainment industries lobbying legislation in Washington. I hope my understanding of US politics is too dark.

  2. Reblogging, @adamfromnorway, now there’s lightning replication for you! I note that you do prominently display your source — with impeccable netiquette — and it’s most enjoyable, looking at the images in your radically different colour scheme and dramatic layout.

  3. === I just read (parts of) the ARTICLE 19 paper you linked to, and the principles appear sound. If they were used in practice, I imagine most of the controversy around copyright would die out. ===

    My own suspicion, too, 5th. I don’t think that many sane, calm people are being heard in this debate — as I hope to show in my next post (no guarantee: not much time for blogging, these days).

    Your mentions of the law, now — and commenting on the last entry here, about Jaron Lanier — are all extremely thoughtful and make sense. … But it’s public opinion and conceptions of artists’ lives and rights that most interest me, since that will influence the rewriting of intellectual property law.

    There is a social consensus behind the cliche that locks and windows exist mostly to keep honest people out. As I’ve argued before in this copyright debate, a similar consensus keeps us from helping ourselves to ripe strawberries in unprotected fields. … If the people bent on smashing copyright understood that they are doing wrong — hurting artists and art — would that make a difference? Can we get a wise social consensus in this sphere?

  4. “Can we get a wise social consensus in this sphere?” Sometimes I think constructive support for artists might spread if people were convinced to openly show who they support financially and how much (in a way that can be verified by anybody), taking pride in their support of a particular artist. There needs to be a reasonably clear connection between one’s contribution and the artist’s benefit from it.

    “Would it make a difference?” Who knows. I believe advocacy would be more successful if the focus of copyright issues shifted away from legislation and enforcement (negative – punishing bad behaviour) to the virtues of supporting artists (positive – promoting good behaviour). At any rate, things will surely get worse before they get better.

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