Sasha Borissenko: Online resource helping artists fight copyright battles

OPINION:

Almost two years ago artist Xoe Hall found that her mural Jam Bowie along Dixon St in Wellington had been photographed and sold by an online ghost company. This wasn’t the first time her art had been plagiarised for commercial gain.

After venting her frustrations online, lawyer Tom Huthwaite approached Hall to tell her she did in fact have legal rights and together they formed “Bad Exposure” – an online resource designed to provide information to street artists around copyright.

Those in the creative sector will be all too familiar with doing work for “exposure” in lieu of payment. For this week’s column, I spoke to Huthwaite and Hall to see what they’re doing to change the system.

What's "Bad Exposure"?

“It was a spontaneous combustion: Xoe needed help and I was there at the right time to provide it. We both felt passionately about the topic and this idea of Bad Exposure just formed – but instead of letting it simmer as an idea, we made it happen,” Huthwaite said.

“Up until recently artists’ rights have been blurry – some thought non-existent even – we are here to make it easy for artists to know their rights and their worth, while raising awareness within Aotearoa as a whole around art theft and what everyone can do to stop it,” Hall said.

New Zealand artists are regularly being taken advantage of and stolen from all the time, and a lot of artists are afraid to speak out for fear of losing work or don’t have the financial or cognitive capacity to do anything about it, Hall says.

Huthwaite says he realises it’s difficult for artists to find useful and accurate information online, and/or to approach lawyers to ask the questions they need answers to.

“I was keen to prove to Xoe that modern lawyers and legal advice can be relatable/understandable, practical, passionate, and affordable.

“One of the common misconceptions is that ‘freely accessible’ means ‘free’. For example, that an artistic work published online or painted as a public mural can be freely used for any purpose. But just because a work can be freely viewed, doesn’t mean it can be freely copied, transformed, communicated or sold elsewhere.

“We’re breaking down these kinds of misconceptions and challenging people to think about how it would feel for the shoe to be on the other foot,” he says.

The main perpetrators

For Hall, the internet provides a catch-22. It’s the best place to visually share one’s work, but it leaves artists incredibly vulnerable.

It’s easy for scam artists to steal an image and put it on a T-shirt, calendar, bong mat, cushion cover, duvet or shower curtain without permission or a care in the world for the original creator, she says.

By the time the original artist has found out and tries to shut it down “the thief can easily just delete their website and completely disappear with the money they made and potentially just set it up again under another website”.

In this case, the best thing to do is for artists to watermark their images, however unfortunate the product might look, she says.

Another common issue is when advertisers use an artist’s work as a backdrop for an advertising campaign. “Whenever you see a product posed in front of a mural, you should wonder if that artist has been asked permission, credited, or paid? Often the artist owns the copyright to that image unless it is agreed otherwise, which means the artist is fully within their rights to legally deal with the matter.”

And then there’s the concept of exposure – or the “E” word, as Hall calls it.

“Great exposure is not payment and it certainly is not doing the artist any favours. If you want to work with an artist, pay them. Artists are constantly being asked to work for free, and the ‘exposure’ is never great for the artist and certainly doesn’t pay the bills. All it does is put money in the pocket of the client,” Hall says.

Where to from here?

The aim of Bad Exposure is to create awareness and a sense of collective action among the creative community, Hall says.

“We are not pushing anything on anyone. We have had great feedback on the resource and often have artists reach out for support online. There is so much more we would love to be able to provide but that will need to happen later down the line.

“The most important thing right now is spreading awareness about art theft and appropriation in NZ and get more people on board to make change and help our industry thrive.”

For Huthwaite he says the online tool is something he wants to chip away at over time and as his and Hall’s lives allow.

But if either of them won Lotto tomorrow, “we could easily turn this into a significant resource and a full-time support network. We’d love for it to become a go-to place for anyone to find information, resources and contacts”.

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