by Claire Wu
Though social media and the internet have become a major part of daily life, it hasn’t been all that long since they were introduced to us. In fact, many of us probably remember the days when art was shared on a more analog level–mailing slides to each other, bringing printouts and physical pieces to show to collectors and spreading promotional materials in print brochures, postcards, and letter invitations.
Now that we live in a world where images and information are available at our fingertips, to anyone in the world–for better and for worse–and given new technological developments in the art world such as NFTs and AI-generated artwork, it’s crucial for artists to understand how to safeguard the integrity of their artistic creations.
WHAT IS COPYRIGHT?
In this article, we strive to provide helpful guidelines on how to navigate the intricacies of art copyright. However, we don’t claim to be legal experts and encourage you to do your own research to ensure you have accurate and up-to-date information. Legislation is amended continuously and varies based on where you are in the world, so make sure to check laws that are current and specific to the country in which you live.
In the United States, copyright is a form of protection provided to the creators of “original works of authorship.” Copyright protection takes effect at the time in which the work is created in a fixed, tangible form and immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work.
Only the author can rightfully claim copyright–this means that the owner of an artwork does not automatically have copyright ownership upon possession of the physical piece. The copyright still belongs to the original creator of the work. If you, an artist, sold your piece, you still have the copyright, even if the piece is now hanging on the walls of the buyer’s home. Thus, ownership of the object and ownership of the copyright are two different things.
Do some research on how to register your work in your area, as it may differ from country to country. This is one of the most effective ways to certify your work as your own on a legal platform and can hold more strongly against fraudulent claims.
However, although one doesn’t need to do anything for copyright to take effect, it can be hard to prove that your work is your own without registering it officially or keeping detailed digital or physical records. In a world where just about everything can be found online, it’s important to be proactive and take preventative measures that will help you back up your argument if needed.
PROTECTING YOUR WORK
Though no method is infallible, there are a number of steps you can take to reduce the risk of people taking images of your work and presenting them as their own–or to refute those claims after they’ve been made.
Watermarks, signatures, and other image alterations
Adding watermarks–translucent logos, symbols, or text superimposed onto the artwork, often including the artist’s name or logo and placed in the center, or repeated all over the image–can help deter those who might want to take your image and use it for themselves. However, though watermarks make it very clear who owns the image, they may impact the viewing experience.
Alternatively, you might opt for something subtler, like a copyright notice placed in a less conspicuous area of the image. Take into consideration how easily this kind of mark can be cropped out. While a more disruptive watermark may affect how well the viewer can see your work, it can be a more effective way to discourage theft.
You may also consider watermarks that are placed strategically–subtle enough to where someone trying to remove it wouldn’t find it, but visible enough to be used as proof of ownership.
Likewise, there are digital tools–metadata, cryptographic tools, digital signatures, etc.–that can achieve a similar effect, but be wary of how secure these methods are. Metadata can be altered, if you know how to do it, so do your own research and figure out what method is the best fit for you.
Another way to protect your images online is to reduce the image quality and/or file size. Like with watermarks, doing this can affect how well viewers can see your artwork. High-quality images are ideal for showing your work in its best form but are more desirable to those who might misappropriate it.
Many website builders and social media platforms have built-in coding that prevents the classic “right-click + save image” strategy, and some even prevent screenshots, but not all of them! So figure out how much quality you’re willing to sacrifice in this case.
Keep organized records
No matter how many photos you take as proof of authorship, they mean nothing if you don’t remember where they’re saved. The same goes for any written records of authenticity–documentation that you took those steps to register your work as legally yours.
Save your files in a place that you’ll remember, and then save a copy somewhere else. The best way to prevent the loss of important data is to create backups in case something goes terribly wrong and your files get deleted.
Consider renaming your files to be identifiable as well–it will save you lots of time if you can easily search through alphabetized lists, rather than sifting through hundreds of files that all start with “IMG_00” for hours on end.
Vigilance–stay up to date with your online presence, legal agreements, and new developments that could affect you
Conduct regular searches to see if your art is being used without your consent using tools such as Google Reverse Image Search and TinEye. This can help you identify potential instances of art theft, and as soon as you see any, reach out to the individuals or online platforms involved to see if you can get the post taken down, or edited to provide appropriate credit to you as the artist as soon as possible
Make sure that when you sign up for any social media platform, you actually read the terms and conditions instead of scrolling past it and hitting the “agree” button. That’s how others can claim that you consented to the use of your images when in reality you hadn’t even known that you were signing any of your rights away. Likewise, any time you sign onto a collaboration or promotional deal, pay close attention to the written agreement that you’ll be signing to ensure you know exactly what you’re signing up for.
Know where to go if you need legal assistance before you need it so that in the event of legal escalation you can resolve the case as efficiently as possible. Do some research into legal counsel in your area, and they can even advise you on these matters in more depth than we can here.
Pay attention to new technologies that could affect you and your work. It can be difficult to keep up, as the world becomes more and more digital every year, but stay up to date on the news. Between the introduction of NFTs to the art scene and AI artwork in the last couple of years, it’s important to know exactly what these technologies are, how they can hurt you, and how they can help you, too.
Are NFTs a form of art that would make sense for you to pursue? Consider the blockchain authentication and benefits they could provide, while also taking into account the arguments against them. Understand exactly what it means when you hear that artificial intelligence can now generate artwork–where it’s sourcing its information from, and what discussions have already happened on the matter.
Specifically, it’s worth looking into the existing legal cases surrounding these technologies, and what the resulting verdicts could mean for future cases, and for you as an artist in a world where novel ideas seem few and far between.
Don’t let just one or two sources of information make your judgments for you. Get all the facts, first, then figure out what it means for you individually.
At the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do. Once an image is out there for the public to see, if someone really wants to take it, they’ll find a way. Hopefully, the methods listed above can help you deter offenders, or, at the very least, help you manage those situations when they arise, allowing you to continue promoting and sharing your work online without fear.