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What I learned from taking part in the Copyright as Frame and Prison panel discussion

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of taking part in Copyright as Frame and Prison, an arts-focused panel discussion organised by Birmingham-based digital artist Antonio Roberts (AKA @hellocatfood on Twitter) as part of his excellent new No Copyright Infringement Intended group exhibition.

Taking part in the panel discussion helped me clarify my own thinking and exposed me to new perspectives on copyright, creativity and society. I thought I’d share a link to the video recording of the event as well as what I learned from taking  part in the event.


For those of you who aren’t a fan of Google’s surveillance capitalism business model, you can also watch Antonio’s video by downloading the the NewPipe Android app from the F-Droid app store.

1. Copyright law is struggling to keep pace with 3D scanning technology

One of the most interesting  projects I learned about on Thursday was called “The Other Nefertiti” by my fellow panellist Nikolai Nelles (@nextnikolai on Twitter).

In 2015, Nikolai along with fellow artist Nora Al-Badri, used Microsoft Kinekts to clandestinely scanned the bust of Nefertiti, an ancient Egyptian queen held by the Neues Museum. Having done so, the artists then released the 3D data online for anyone in the world to download and print using rapidly improving 3D printers.

Nikolai and Nora devised the project as a creative response to objections they had over the museum’s stance on copyright and appropriation. Nikolai explained how the Neues Berlin had previously carried out their own 3D scan of Nefertiti but had restricted access to the data and claimed copyright over their work, despite not having created the original artefact. The sense of outrage was compounded by the contested nature of ownership of the original artefact, which was taken from Egypt by the Germans during the era of colonial conquest.

The Nefertiti project showed how 3D scanning is simultaneously creating new opportunities for museums to extend their claims of ownership of works in their collections and providing opportunities for citizens to resist copyright over-reach. As Antonio explained, when even the most basic smartphone is now capable of creating 3D scans, it will increasingly hard for institutions to prevent people from carrying out similar heists in future.

I hope that institutions recognise the futility of fighting the democratisation of 3D scanning technology and instead encourage visitors and supporters to help them crowdsource the production of publicly accessible scans of their collections, similar to the Creative Commons-licensed #NEWPALMYRA Syrian heritage project.

2. Success often changes people’s attitudes to copyright and appropriation

Lisa Beauchamp, Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at Birmingham Museums Trust, provided some fascinating insights into how copyright law affects how institutions showcase and promote creative works.

I was saddened to discover copyright law had made it very difficult for the Birmingham Museums Trust to organise and promote the recent “Love is Enough” exhibition of William Morris and Andy Warhol works. The Andy Warhol estate charges extremely high fees for the use of his work and exercises a high degree of control over how institutions use the work, including restricted their use on social media. Given Andy Warhol’s career relied on the appropriation of other people’s work and this had often led him into copyright and trademark disputes, there’s something especially unpleasant about his estate making it hard for others to engage with his work.

3. Many artists see copyright as a legitimate way of controlling how their art is experienced

As a digital rights campaigner with the Open Rights Group in Birmingham, I broadly share ORG’s concerns over the expansion of copyright law in recent decades and the negative consequences this has had on freedom of expression, innovation and the ability of the public to access culture.

Taking part in the discussion panel made me realise, however, that many artists, even those engaged in producing work which question concepts of ownership and appropriation, feel copyright is an important tool for allowing them to keep control of their art.

For example, what does it matter if a person takes a digital copy of your artwork and re-works it without your permission? I take the view that this action does not diminish the value or quality of the original piece of work as the artist is still free to present their work as they wish. This is is how free software works. I am free to download the code for WordPress, for example, and create a new version of the web platform that better suits my needs. The only stipulation is that if I build on top of free software I must make my own software publicly available so that others can benefit from it, too. In other words, I can’t do an Andy Warhol.

For me, this is just common sense. However, I realised, particularly after talking to Lisa, how many artists feel a sense of ownership of their work long after they’ve created them and wish to see their creations being treated with respect. For artists who feel this way, copyright is seen as a legitimate way of ensuring their works aren’t used in ways they disagree with.

Applying what I learned to my campaign work

As a digital rights campaigner, I would like to do more work with artists to explain that our support for copyright reform does not mean we are unsympathetic to artists’ concerns.

I hope in the future to be able to talk more about how how expanded copyright laws, such as the DMCA copyright take-down system, is frequently used as a tool of censorship.

I would also like to highlight how unauthorised cultural borrowing has made possible entirely new forms of cultural expression such as hip-hop, often in the face of considerable resistance from the artists and copyright holders whose works were being borrowed.

Finally, I’d like to share with artists and other creatives examples of where people have been able to build successful careers without having to resort to copyright restrictions, such as as the inspiring case studies of open business models featured in the recent Made with Creative Commons e-book (which was funded through a Kickstarter campaign I contributed to).

Featured image: Copyright as Frame and Prison by Antonio Roberts is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 – no copyright infringement intended 🙂

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