Protecting the Artist on Social Media

What if I told you that one of your Instagram photos had just been sold for $90,000 in a Manhattan art gallery? It would be great, except that you wouldn’t know your photos were in the gallery, and on top of that, you would never see a single dime of that money.

A few months ago an artist named Richard Prince took 38 pictures and hung them in the Gagosian Showroom in Manhattan. All of the photos were pulled directly off of various Instagram accounts without the original creator’s consent or knowledge. Each one of the photographs was priced for $90,000.

Instagram users and artists were outraged, sparking a worldwide debate over copyright issues and appropriation of art. Copyright law clearly states that once a photograph is taken it is the sole property of the creator. Despite this, Prince argues that he has added social value to the images and therefore is in the bounds of what is legally acceptable.

In two other infamous cases in the photo world, photo blogger Brandon Stanton and photographer Maxwell Jackson had their images used illegally as well. In February 2013, Brandon Stanton, who runs the popular photo blog Humans of New York, had over 300 photographs featured without his knowledge in a DKNY store in Bangkok, Thailand. The clothing brand denied that it had intentionally done anything wrong, yet because of Stanton’s massive following, DKNY eventually gave into Stanton’s requests and donated $25,000 to a Brooklyn YMCA. Later that same year, Jackson had his photos illegally used by The Color Run in a national advertisement campaign. He was not compensated and unaware. He eventually settled with the company and The Color Run attributed the copyright infringement to a misunderstanding with the photographer. Whatever the intentions of either company, the problem of stealing art is widespread.

Artists on Instagram or any social media platform for that matter, face the serious risk of having their photographs stolen; by stolen I mean used without consent or having others claim it as their own. To most, it seems illogical that one person could steal another person’s work without repercussion. In school it is called plagiarism, which is the severest of all academic crimes. One accused of stealing another’s intellectual property can be immediately failed in the course, put on academic probation or even expelled.

Deep in the widely unread user agreements of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are statements about how each site protects their users against copyright infringement. While Instagram might be the most protective of them all, those determined to steal photographs, such as Richard Prince or worldwide companies, are doing it with ease. Realistically, there is not a true way to stop it, nor is there a way to know if someone has illegally downloaded your photo unless you happen to stumble upon it elsewhere.

Instagram only ensures protection within the boundaries of the site, meaning if someone takes your image and reposts it on their own feed then you are protected. However, it does not include images that are downloaded off of the site and then sold, as in Prince’s case. With relative ease, people can download pictures off of social media sites. Even if the site does not have a specific download option, taking a screen shot of the page is a possibility with most computers and smart phones. It is not as much of a social media problem as a technology problem.

There was once a reasonable expectation that once an artist created something, that work was protected. Now with the availability of images and the ability to download anything anywhere, that expectation has become a luxury. Social media has become inherently unsafe for artists, but also extraordinarily valuable for exposure. At a certain point the artist has to decide what is more important: Sharing art with the world or keeping it protected. If the endgame of the artist’s is to share beautiful imagery, tell a story, comment on society or anything else, then isn’t it worth the risk? There has never been a better way to share art with eight billion people. If we look back at Brandon Stanton, he has amassed nearly 13 million followers on Facebook from around the globe. These people see his art every day, and it has boosted him to the top of the New York Times bestseller list multiple times.

Other photographers have also praised social media sites for helping them gain exposure from around the globe. Well known National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson has 184,000 Instagram followers and has stated that he loves being able to share his stories with that many people around the world. He does not believe that the threat of having your pictures stolen is a bad trade-off for the following he has built. In an interview last year with photoshelter.com he said, “I’d trade control for exposure. My gamble is that getting the photographs seen and making them part of culture is worth more than any risk of residual loss, because people are downloading my pictures. I know they are stealing my pictures. Let them. I’m betting that the payback will come from wide exposure, not from tight control. I don’t know if I’m going to win the bet or not. But there it is.”

Yes, Jim, there it is.

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