Why Photographers Who Put Their Copyright Notices Across Their Images Aren't Artists

Yesterday, I kicked over a big ol' the anthill on Facebook and Twitter with the following statement:

"Photographers who put their name across a photo to protect copyright aren't artists, they're hourly laborers with cameras instead of shovels"

It caused some very serious debate and got quite a few people quite ignited. It was a reaction to a photo I saw on a friend's Facebook page; a quite lovely wedding photo that was pretty well composed and shot, with a garish red copyright notice across the middle of the image. I thought to myself "Wow, what a shame a beautiful image was made ugly by greed." And it made me realize that the guy who took the photo probably spent years learning and honing his craft. He has probably spent several thousands of dollars on his equipment. He probably takes his work very seriously. He definitely takes nice photos.

But his work is not art. It's commerce. It's labor. It's making a product. If it were art, his primary concern would not be how it was used, it would be that it was seen.

Here's an exempt from the most popular thing I've ever written, The Wal-Mart Story. To date, it has been read over 20,000,000 times. That's TWENTY MILLION. I hope you enjoy:

Right. Stupid, huh? Well, let me be very clear:


It's simple: artists make art. Defacing the thing you made with your artistic skill isn't making art, it's protecting your work, or keeping people from "stealing" it, or otherwise protecting its value. But it's not art. And when you do this, you reduce your status from "artist" to "laborer who made a photo." And it's value? Art becomes more valuable the more people see it. Period.

I don't think it's WRONG when a photographer puts a big red garish copyright notice across their image. They have a right to do so; it's their work. They have the right to protect it. They have the right to attempt to sell it. They have all kinds of rights. I don't think that it's wrong to use those rights.

I never once said it was "wrong." I said it is not art.

Now, there's a huge difference between watermarking your images and signing your work. Putting a border around a photo and putting your signature in that border is signing your work, like this:

Photognome is Joe Hunt, a very good friend of mine. He's been doing photography longer than most everyone I know his age. He's a bright guy. He's got a HUGE reputation. Everyone in the convention, kink and alt culture scenes knows him and his work. His photos are very nice. I'd call them art. He signs them in the bottom right corner with his copyright. He does this because his arrangement, his subject, his lighting, his background, his composition and everything else is paramount. He wants his work seen. He wants people to be able to share it. (Update: to clarify, I think a watermark on the photo itself gets close to the line, but still doesn't cross it. You are still signing your work, but it's distracting from the actual image).

That's a far cry from this:

It's no coincidence that the more green and less known the "artist", the more pronounced their signature is across their work. Because the work can't speak for itself.  Nothing screams "I am an insecure 'artist' desperate for your money" like this shit. It ruins the photo and, along with it, any chance that I'm going to share this image with anyone I know -- which is counter to the intent of actual art.

Photographer Trey Ratcliff -- who not only takes some pretty snazzy photos, but does QUITE well professionally selling his photography to clients and teaching courses -- has this to say about the practice of using watermarks:
Why I Don't Use Watermarks

I get this question a lot, and I know it came up in the live hangout last night. I know my opinion is different than many other photographers, and that is okay.

As you may know, my work is all Creative Commons Non-Commercial. That means people, as long as they give credit and link back to http://www.StuckInCustoms.com , can use my images on their blogs, wallpaper, personal use – anything – as long as it is not used commercially. Every day, I upload a HUGE 6000+ pixel max-resolution image to the Internet. I do not have any fear at all… Believe me, it’s quite liberating living in a world without internet-stealth-fear.

People that want to license our images regularly contact our licensing team – we get many of these every day of the week.

So why don’t I use watermarks? It’s a multi-part philosophy –

1) Watermarks look ugly. Whenever I look at a photo with a watermark, often times, ALL I can think about is that watermark! It's so distracting. Maybe this is just me.

2) Legitimate companies do not steal images to use commercially. So I don’t have any logical fear there. *In case of emergency, break glass and see #4

3) There are other services, like Tineye (and Google) that can help my team easily find bottom-feeders.

4) We do register our images with the copyright office, so if someone uses an image commercially without a proper license, it is an easy lawsuit.

5) I don’t have to maintain two versions of each image – one with a watermark and one without.

6) NOT using watermarks and using creative commons helps more and more people to use your image freely for fun, which increases traffic and builds something I call “internet-trust."

7) As image search and image recognition get better and better, there will be no need to watermark things. In 1 year+, we'll be able to r-click an image and choose "Google-find the original creator" -- there is a bit trail to first-on-the-internet.

8) Yes, last, there will be bottom-feeders that steal your stuff. I call this the cost of doing business on the internet. These are the Tic-Tacs that are stolen from the 7-11. It is impossible to maintain 100% of your digital inventory, so wanting "perfection" in your online strategy is an illusion.
"But someone may steal my photo (or illustration or concept)!" You say. "Urban Outfitters is notorious for stealing images and illustrations and making shirts with them!" 

That's wrong of them. They are terrible for doing it. And because you have the copyright and can prove your work existed before they took it, and that you're the original source of the work, you've got one heck of a great lawsuit on your hands. You also have one heck of a piece of marketing when you send the story to Consumerist.com. 

But tell me, which is worse as an artist -- that a company appropriated your work without your permission and people found out about it? Or that no one knows who you are? 

What would you have charged for the image in the first place? Is that $5000 or $1000 or $500 really worth all the work and loss of exposure and defacement to your beautiful image from "protecting" it? Is that what makes your heart beat? Is that what makes your soul soar? The sound of "cha-ching!" when you sell your work? 

You're no fucking artist. That's not a bad thing, it's just true.

This also goes for writing, illustration, music, movies and everything else. If you're making a product, it's fine. Make a product. Sell your product. Just don't call it "Art." 

Art is expression. Art is telling stories. Art is showing the world how you feel, what you know, how you see things. And I am not at all sorry when I tell someone they are not an artist when commerce comes first. 

The trick in these times isn't to deface your art in order to protect it. All that does is limit people from wanting to share it, which limits your exposure, which is 100% pure amateur hour bullshit. Besides, exposure isn't even the primary concern in making art. Expression is. The idea that people see it is secondary to the idea that it says what you wanted it to say -- it's it's actual art, that is. But when you add exposure to the picture, you open the possibility that people will find out who you are and thus buy what you have for sale. How can people hire you if they don't know you exist? How can they buy what you make if they don't see it? 

Outside of someone using your work to sell their own goods -- which I do agree is theft -- the argument gets muddied when it extends to any kind of use. Someone copying your image and using it on their blog. Someone downloading your image as their desktop wallpaper. 

Those things are only theft because YOU think it's worth selling, and you consider "use" without compensation a lost sale. It's not. Just because someone listens to a song in 2012 does not mean they would have been willing to pay for that song in the first place. Just because someone downloads a movie and watches it without paying for it does not mean they would have otherwise been willing to pay for it. 

Just because someone takes your image and uses it on their website does not mean they would have bought it from you in the first place. They aren't your customer because they used your image. They just plain used your image.

On Selling Your Art

Now, some simpletons like to convolute my sentiments of art vs. commerce. They leap to the conclusion that I don't think you should be able to sell your art or make money with it. That's ludicrous. It used to be insulting, until I realized only fucking morons think this, and the last thing I'm concerned with is the opinions of fucking morons.

Selling your art isn't impure. Selling out isn't when you sell your art, it's when you make what you're paid to make.

And I need to stress -- THERE IS NOTHING AT ALL WRONG WITH SELLING OUT. Make money, son. Get paid, preferably in cash. Use what you got to get that loot. I'm all for it. I am happy as hell when an artist can make money doing what they love.

I also think that there's absolutely art that goes into doing commissions, production work and so on. I believe that, when given the latitude, artists will find a way to take what they've been asked to do for money and insert their own visions and ideas into it. But when you begin taking direction which limits your expression, and you are reduced to using your talent to make what you've been told to make, you're not making art, you're making product.

Likewise, when your goal with your work is to cash out, you may be using your artistic talent to make it, but what you've made is not art. It's product. If that statement insults you, you need to realign your perception and consider what it is you're doing, and why being called a laborer (with a camera, a paint brush, a pencil or otherwise) hurts your feelings.

Yes, artists should get paid for their art. Yes, I absolutely believe that a true artist can and should sell their work. But I can tell you that every true artist I've ever met didn't give a rat's ass about having their painting photographed at a convention or on the street, or having their photos shared with other people, or having their stories copied and pasted for others to read -- so long as they received attribution.

I've been writing on the internet for 12 years now. Every single thing I've ever written is readily available for free on the internet for anyone who wants to read it. I don't charge people for my work before they've read it. Instead, I sell products I make with my work to people who want to support me. Every story in both of my books (and the third one coming soon) is available on MentallyIncontinent.com. I even uploaded the entire first book in its printed format to Google Books

This practice was not an accident. I very specifically decided to make all of my work available via Creative Commons. My stories spread across the internet as people found and liked them. It led to writing for computer magazines and later, AOL News, Huffington Post and CNN.Com. It led to 60,000+ books sold between the two I've released so far. It's led to my entire career, which does pretty well for me.

And every single day, I get up, have my coffee, open up my word processor and begin writing yet another thing without a single thought as to how the hell I'm going to sell it to anyone. Because I trust the fact that people will find my work, and of the people who find my work, a certain percentage will like it, and when you have a dedicated base of people who support you, you have a platform to sell what you make to them. When you have an audience, you have a reason for people to hire you to write things for them. When you have fans who believe in you and support you financially, you have the ability to make it as an artist. 

When you necessarily cut off access to your work by putting all sorts of bullshit "protection" around it, you not only limit your access to people who want to share you, you screw up any chance of someone enjoying the actual ART of it. But that's your right. It's bad business, and it's absolutely antithetical to the entire concept of making art. But it's your right. 

If you're making art and posting it online (or otherwise putting it in the public eye), and you are concerned about unauthorized use, the answer isn't to deface your work so that it can't be used without your permission. The answer is to be so recognizable that anyone taking your work will be caught by those familiar with it. The answer is to quit thinking that every use is a lost sale. The answer is to quit being so goddamn concerned with being paid and use that energy to make your work better.

You have a finite amount of energy in you. If you want to sell artwork, use that energy to be a better salesperson -- and any decent salesperson will tell you the first rule of sales is let the customer use the product. Get it in their hands. 

If you want to use that energy to be an artist, then for heaven's sake, be a better artist. 

** Update 9:30 AM **

How else should I phrase this? I don't think selling your art means you're not an artist. I don't think signing your work means you're not an artist. I don't think working for a client doing the work you do for pay means you're not an artist.

I think ruining what you make in order to "protect" it violates the spirit of sharing art because it puts commerce and ownership first. It is not artistic. The work is not art. The producer is not an artist.

As for watermarking: My good friend and professional photographer Jim Messerfish put together this very simple illustration to explain to people what I'm talking about: