Art for all – how copyright law should change

If you research art history, you know how hard it can be to track down an image of a work of art. Most works are in private collections, and the works of any given artist are usually spread far and wide. In many cases, sketchbooks and other key sources have been broken up, and even tracing the location of the fragments can be incredibly hard. Generally speaking, oil paintings by the most famous painters are most accessible, and some online catalogues raisonnés are being set up to make research even simpler.

Copyright law across the EU and much of the rest of the world makes provision for certain types of ‘fair use’, which includes education and research. However there are grey areas, and existing laws are quite pre-digital in their approach. For instance, I can point you at blogs which contain large numbers of images of paintings which I know are still subject to copyright.

In this blog, I assume that any words or images created by living authors and artists are covered by copyright, unless they have made it clear that the words or images in question are free of copyright – Creative Commons, WikiArt, and the equivalent, and even then I try to ensure that they are properly credited. However in another article, I provided a link to Peter Doig’s paintings, because I did not see any clear release of the posted images from the protection of the law. This is not just a matter of trying to stay squeaky clean, but of ensuring that I respect the copyright holder’s rights (one of my issues with the Luc Tuymans case, you will recall).

We need copyright law to be brought into the 21st century and make clear what is and is not acceptable. I know that is bad business for lawyers, but it is very good for the rest of us, and an important aim for lawmakers.

And among those rights of free use, I would like to see a right to use (at least) for non-commercial purposes, including free blogs, images not exceeding, say, 1,500 by 1,500 pixels in size. This would enable blogs like this, and most papers, to show images of acceptable size of any work of art, whether or not the work was still covered by copyright.

My motives (other than making these pages prettier and covering more painters) are to promote art, not to detract from fair rewards to artists.

Works of art are a form of communication, and they become more effective and successful when they communicate with the widest of audiences. Too many great paintings, sculptures, etc., have disappeared behind closed doors, to be appreciated by very small numbers of people. Making medium resolution images available, and freely usable for non-commercial purposes, would give the world access to those treasures, and enrich humanity as a whole.

This would not force owners of artworks to make images available, nor would it have any significant adverse impact on the artists, the art industry, or collectors/owners. Indeed I think that every artist would be pleased if more people were able to enjoy their work. Don’t you?