Copyright
as a creative tool
How to stop being trapped within legislative regulations and start using copyright as means of expression
The conversation about copyright among illustrators in Russia is still a complex and difficult topic: a rare illustrator is knowledgable enough in this matter, admitting one's mistakes is a pain, and wading through lengthy sheets of legal papers is no fun. Talking about copyright remains a bitter pill, something that is merely “necessary”. But there is also another way to look at the issue.
An illustrator has two resources: the illustration itself and the right to use it, and the second in terms of cost for the client can significantly exceed the first. With regard to the first resource, illustrators are usually quite flexible, and can adjust the intonation, plot, materials and techniques. In the case of rights, this flexibility is not always obvious: an illustrator rarely knows how to adjust the lisencing terms, and in many cases does not understand why this may be necessary. Meanwhile, the rights we sell determine not just the formal relationship with the client, when and how much money an illustrator will get, but also the role and function of the image, its modes of spectatorship. In this sense, copyright can be regarded as a professional resource and even an artistic medium. Why so?

One might remember a notable case of using copyright as a creative tool by Radiohead back in 2007. Responding to piracy issues and problematic interaction with record companies, they made their album available on a 'pay what you want' basis, which attracted the attention of a wide audience to the institutional mechanisms of the music business. The gesture that went in line with the concerns of institutional critique, challenged the omnipotence of the background economic mechanisms behind the music industry and made them visible. Of course, this gesture can be called a romanticist urge to reclaim the author's power and take it back from the institutions that cover their machinery with banners with the author's face. But this is an important case of a conscious use of copyright, which modified the way the work was perceived, and there similar cases are known in illustration.

The first example is the case of Ekaterina Molodtsova, who gave away the rights to use her illustrations of a Bengal cat to Taiwan. A quick recap of the story: the government of Taiwan launched a new tourist train to Nantou, the design of which was dedicated to a local endangered endemic species, the Bengal cat. The commission was taken by an illustrator Jiang Mengzhi, who presented an image of a leopard instead of a cat, calling it her own artistic interpretation. After a wave of criticism and a storm of links to the account of the real author of the image, she admitted that she bought the finished illustration with a leopard on Shutterstock. Its author was Ekaterina Molodtsova, who, having learned about the conflict, prepared several images with an actual Bengal cat and donated them to Taiwan. In gratitude, she was invited to Taiwan for the train launch ceremony, the Ministry of Transportation thanked the illustrator for her “contribution to the conservation of an endangered species”. Now, if one googles “Russian illustrator” in Chinese, Google brings up Ekaterina’s works first.

It is not quite clear which rights exactly were bought by Jiang Mengzhi, but even if she bought an exclusive license, the author is still Ekaterina, let alone the fact that it is more than questionable to argue that a factual mistake is an 'artistic interpretation'.

So what happened here? An illustrator donates her work and thus claims her right to use them. This takes place when there is also a 'fake' work, and thus the image of the Bengal cat made later on also becomes a manifestation of 'authenticity', a symbol of 'genuineness', and, if taken to an extreme, a representation of a 'triumph of truth' (a real author was found, she draws the right cat and donates the image as a gift, because Truth and Authenticity are more precious than money! - cheering and applause, happy end). This manifestation of authenticity is actually the main thing that is donated with the cat file, and this exquisite performance unfolds with an illustrator using her ownership rights.

In this sense, the final product that is transferred from the illustrator to the other side is the very truth, and the image is just a medium to deliver it. The main creative decision here relates to using the copyright: after all, one could sell 'the right cat' for money, or take the case to the court, or do nothing at all, copyright in this case is a means of artistic expression.

Of course, it is only the presence of a fake that boosted the value of truth so much. However, this does not mean that copyright determines the value of illustration only if the rights are violated. Another case that comes to mind here is the portrait of a journalist Ivan Golunov drawn by Victor Melamed after the scandalous lawsuit against the journalist, that was, allegedly, initiated to silence his investigation of corruption cases. When the conflict was at its peak, the illustrator posted the portrait on his social networks stating that it can be used for free without mentioning the illustrator's name.

In this case an image is donated to the public domain with a message that authorship and attribution is less important than the image distribution and circulation. Moreover, the image is constructed to cirulate without mentioning the author. This does not affect the formal qualities of the artwork (the portrait is more or less similar to the other portraits by the same illustrator in terms of technique, materials etc). But this means that the final product is not limited by the image itself, but also implies specifically desgined modes of image distribution and usage.

If I repost the portrait, I express solidarity with a certain group of people on a certain issue in an economical way. In other words, this image becomes a standardised digital gesture, as if a handshake could have specific connotations: 'a handshake for Ivan Golunov'. But what makes this portrait different from, let's say, an iconic piece of lettering 'I/We are Ivan Golunov' and a hashtag #свободуголунову ('freedom to Golunov'). Or, similarly, what makes a portrait of George Floyd different from a post with a black square or a hashtag #blackouttuesday?

The easiest answer would be that a particular person is central to the event, and their face is central to the representations of their personality. A face is a unique sign of a person, and in this case it is reduced to a 'logo', a black and white stencil-like image that can be reproduced with the easiest and cheapest means. The iconic portrait of Che Guevara, for instance, is also a 'logo'. In this sense, the portrait of Golunov is a contribution to the canonisation of the image.

Also, perhaps the hashtag, lettering/black square, and portrait have varying degrees of standardisation and simplification of the event. For a user who can repost any of these objects or, let's say, an article on the subject, it is not always possible to find an article that will perfectly reflect one's idea of truth. In the portrait though, unlike a hashtag or a black square, there is 'visual meat', 'the body' of the statement, there is specificity and visual depth, there is 'content'. At the same time, this content is, quite paradoxically, not quite defined: it is not articulated in words. This provides a certain convenience to the user who reposts a portrait, as they are free to adjust the nuances of the content for themselves (which is impossible with an article). In other words, a portrait is a manifesto, that each of those who reposted it, did not write.

It is also important to note that a portrait, unlike an icon or a black square, indicates the presence of the author, and in a broader sense - indicates uniqueness, singularity of the creator of the image. It is not about the personality of the author, but the fact that any drawn portrait, in its essence broadcasts the property of uniqueness as such. One does not have to know the artist behind the portrait. That is why reposting this portrait communicates not only solidarity, but also uniqueness: “I agree with you in a way that the majority does not”, “I am unique in my solidarity with you.” This is not as far-fetched as it seems, if we recall the fact that today not only artificial intelligence scans our social networks and makes judgments about us, but a very 'natural intelligence' of our potential employers does so, too.

Of course, one can still write their comments on the situation beside the reposted portrait. But it is important that the usage of copyright in this case implies a wider variety of distribution methods, including without the ones that do not require any comments at all, like a status in social networks. Summarizing the above: by donating the right to reproduce a portrait without attribution, the illustrator not only contributes to the iconisation of the image, but also generates a digital gesture that allows to broadcast solidarity and the uniqueness of this solidarity, replacing the verbal articulation of the position on resonant public issue with visual texture.

Such practices in copyright usage remain more or less rare in illustration. Creative treatment of copyright is not yet recognized as part of the illustrator's artistic arsenal, and in this sense it is important to turn to the practice of artists who critically reflect on the institutional environment in which they exist.

What comes to mind first is Maria Eichhorn's project Money at Kunsthalle Bern. In this project, she spent the budget for the exhibitoin work to renovate the building where the exhibition was held, so the thing she was showing in the exhibition was the renovation process. Apart from this, she created a catalogue assembling the fact from the history of the building, the shows held there and the history of money influx into this place.

Another project in this field was 'Supershow - More than a Show' (2005) by Superflex collective, during which, instead of taking 10 francs for the ticket, they paid the vistors 2 francs. The actual show only displayed the gallery rooms with the room parameters (size, wall colour etc) displayed on the walls. Apart from that, they had actors within the space who performed rcertain 'visitor characters': 'a marxist', 'an investor', etc. They initiated conversations with the visitors and discussed the economic life of the space. On top of that, the invited experts have calculated the 'Kunsthalle factor' during the exhibition: an index that shows how much the price of the art exhibited in Kunsthalle went up after the exhibition. Thus participating in the show, the visitors participated in the process of the artwork price escalation, which could simultaneously be observed by them.

Ownership is one of the fundamental aspects of visual culture. It manifests itself in all aspects of artistic practice: from the way we make a mundane photograph a beautiful flower or a landscape, ritually appropriating it for ourselves, to the curatorial choices in museums. Thus image ownership should also be considered an integral part of the illustrative practice: an economic, artistic resource, and, ultimately, a political resource. And if this still looks like an exaggeration, then here is the story from Alfredo Jaar's project, The Lament of Images. In this project, the artist used two rooms: one had three texts describing three real stories about non-existent or disappeared images, while in the other there was an empty luminous screen. One of the stories was about Bill Gates, who bought out one of the largest photo archives in the world:
"It is reported that one of the largest collections of historical photographs in the world is about to be buried in an oldblimestone mine forever. The mine, located in a remote area of western Pennsylvania, was turned into a corporate bomb shelter In the 1950s and Is now known as the Iron Mountain National Underground Storage site.

The Bettmann and United Press International archive, comprising an estimated 17 million images, was purchased in 1995 by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. Now Gates' private company Corbis will move the images from New York City to the mine and bury them 220 feet below the surface in a subzero, low-humidity storage vault.

It is thought that the move will preserve the images, but also make them totally inaccessible. In their place, Gates plans to sell digital scans of the images. In the past six years, 225,000 images, or less than 2 percent of them, have been scanned. At that rate, it would take 453 years to digitize the entire archive. The collection includes images of the Wright Brothers in flight, JFK Jr. saluting his father's coffin, important images from the Vietnam War, and Nelson Mandela in prison. Gates also owns two other photo agencies and has secured the digital reproduction rights to works in many of the world's art museums. At present, Gates owns the rights to show (or bury) an estimated 65 million images."


From Alfredo Jaar's project 'The Lament of Images'

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ksenia.jpg@gmail.com
ksenia.jpg@gmail.com
ksenia.jpg@gmail.com
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