Does copyright exist for online artists?

Posted by Emily Craxton on 19 October 2016

Copyright is an often unrecognised or misunderstood right. Contrary to common belief, there is no need to go through a legal process or registration to establish copyright; it is automatically instilled in original artistic work once it is fixed in material form. Of course, it is also very valuable to all artists, as it protects their work from unauthorised copying.

So, of course it exists for artists working online. The question however, for those independent artists or for those that rely heavily on the internet to share their work, is, do they have any protection from copyright law in real terms? Is the law even a solution for such artists?  

We asked Liz Dowthwaite, who recently published an article in First Monday with Robert Houghton and Richard Mortier entitled, “How relevant is copyright to online artists? A qualitative study of understandings, coping strategies, and possible solutions”, to help us understand this important issue.

The study focused on webcomic artists and the issues surrounding copy right and attribution law. It documents a series of 11 interviews that examines attitudes amongst the artists, in relation to current copy laws across the EU and internationally.


Comic by Kris Straub. Image Source

1. We were interested by your choice to focus on webcomic artists. Why did you choose this group?

"Apart from personally being a big fan of webcomics, as a group within the creative industries, webcomic artists have received relatively little attention from academics. As small, independent, creators, who encourage sharing of their work in order to create an audience of avid readers, they are among the most vulnerable groups when it comes to copyright violation, and form an interesting case for investigating the current state of copyright law online."

2. Based on your research, what are the key issues faced by artists who share their work online?

"Independent artists, especially webcomic artists, rely on sharing their work across social media and content-sharing sites. This leaves them open to having their work stolen or misused. Whilst copyright is an automatic right, and current copyright law provides all the cover that is essential for independent artists, the main problem lies in monitoring violations and the enforcement of rights. It is usually left up to the creator to maintain control of every piece of work they post. In real terms, this means it is extremely hard for an artist to protect themselves."

Whilst the artists interviewed were generally aware of the cover provided by copyright, I found they felt that is not necessarily relevant or effective within the creative space they work in. There is currently an uneasy balance between artists trying to make a living online, and people who will take advantage. And whilst some approaches do exist to tackle the many problems inherent to posting content online, many artists are either not aware of them, or do not feel that they are effective enough.

I believe that larger businesses may take advantage because they believe that artists cannot afford to fight back, and on the other side individual users do not necessarily realise or care what effect reposting work without credit can have on self-employed creators. There is very little support and there are few resources available to help them to fight for control of their work, and whilst artists do get angry about actual theft and malicious removal of attribution, they also accept that they have to put up with certain violations if they wish to continue to publish comics for free on the Internet.

3. You’ve said in your paper, many online artists must ‘accept their fate’ of being copied due to the industry they are working in. What is your position on this?

It is not acceptable that creators must accept their fate to be copied, or that they are mostly left alone to create their own coping strategies. I think that the issues raised by my research exist in many creative industries and other communities and individuals in non-standard professions, and their struggles should be highlighted.

Comic by kris straub. Image Source

4. What changes do you think need to be made to accommodate those working online in creative industries?

There is no easy solution but a number of changes could be made:
1. Copyright needs to be simplified, re-organised and made more relevant to those working online.
2. More help should be available to artists so that they can increase their awareness of how the law can support them. One great resource is Katie Lane’s website Work Made for Hire; whilst focused on US law it contains a lot of great advice for creators.
3. Technologies can be improved. Most creators are not programmers or computer scientists and as such technologies such as watermarking need to be made simple to use and hard to break – a near impossible task but one worth pursuing.
4. There needs to be further discussions on the visibility and complexity of website policies; there have been many stories of sites trying to ‘own’ content uploaded to their site, and what this means is often exaggerated on both sides or hidden in complex jargon.
5. Finally, further discussion on the ways to educate the general public on what is acceptable behavior can only be a good thing. As people grow up online nowadays, they may be unaware of the harm they can do, or how they can help.

5. Finally, how central is the role of law and what steps would you like to see legal professionals take to support the industry?

Again, there is no easy solution. Unfortunately, the problems that arise from working online are only set to increase, as more people look to pursue their careers in an online space. Even if laws could be made watertight for every situation that may arise, the overarching problems of adherence and enforcement will always remain. As technological solutions such as watermarking become more complex and secure, so do unscrupulous people become more adept at circumventing them. For every website that is served with a takedown notice, another pops up with a slightly different URL.

In the end rather than a perpetual cycle of policing sites, professionals should work to discourage people from such violations in the first place, including educating them about what terms such as copyright actually mean in practical terms.

Finally, it is important to keep the conversation open between creators and legal professionals in order for the latter to stay on top of the problems that the former face on a daily basis."

 Comic by Jonathan Rosenberg. Image Source

Emily Craxton

Written by Emily Craxton

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