Don't sign away those electronic rights

Tony Davies, editor of Arts Law’s ArtLines discusses with Keith Gallasch the need for a legal advice publication about the digital arts

KG What are Artlines’ concerns?

TD I think our concerns are mostly digital. And I think possibly, through a process of osmosis, everyone’s concerns are going to become increasingly digital, though perhaps not mostly digital.

KG Even in areas where we thought they would not have been?

TD I think so. No-one can predict what will happen in the future, I think it is futile to do so, but digital technologies will infuse themselves into society, perhaps the way telephones did. I don’t think Alexander Graham Bell predicted the impact of the invention of the telephone.

KG What is the need for Artlines?

TD A need for information about legal rights, about the law, and what you can and can’t do, especially with other people’s work. Also there is apprehension, certainly amongst people who have yet to touch a computer, including a lot of creators who work in traditional media. We want to reach those people, and reassure and perhaps encourage them to get out there.

KG To protect their own work and further it?

TD In terms of the law, certainly. You have to look at how other people are going to use your work. There are a lot of concerns at the moment about artists signing away the electronic rights to their works for a song, in the belief that electronic rights really will be an ancillary form of income for them. In the future electronic rights may be a primary form of income.

KG Who will be the readership of Artlines?

TD Artlines has been sent to all Arts Law members, but it is aimed at all people who are interested in the creative applications of new technologies. Film makers in particular should really be taking note of the new issues. To an extent, it is also aimed at lawyers, and lawyers need to learn to deal with these issues and they also need to learn how artists think as well. There is always a disjunction between social practice or between the way artists work, and the law. Copyright is a good example. Certainly in the age of appropriation, copyright can’t come to grips with the way a lot of artists work. Amongst the creative community, it is aimed at those people working with new technology. They need to know what they can and what they can’t do, who they should be seeking permission from. So there is a quite pragmatic focus.

KG So how do you reach all these people?

TD At the moment, the strategy is to let the creative community know about it and get it to them on paper. We are ‘dead tree publishers’ still. Sooner than we originally planned to, we will also be getting it online. It is a lot cheaper and in the case of Artlines, we will be really getting to the people interested in the area. Most people working in digital media have gone online. Six months ago, everyone was talking about CD ROM, now no-one is talking about CD ROM. They are talking about publishing on the World Wide Web.

KG The content transcends legal advice with examples of recent Australian multimedia, CD ROM and online work. But you also give examples, like Negativland’s scrap with U2’s record company. The article doesn’t seem to me to come down on either side of the argument and we know that U2 themselves were not unsympathetic.

TD Negativland taped U2, and they taped some out-takes of some well-known disk jockeys in the States, and combined them into a new recording. The legal and artistic community is ambivalent about the question of copying. I suppose copyright, since the 19th century at least has always looked at trying to balance the rights of users against the rights of creators. Where you set that balance, in each case, will probably be different, and it is very hard to say what is right and wrong. I suppose one way of looking at it is that you should treat others the way you yourself would wish to be treated. We have to maintain a stance of ambivalence at this stage.

KG So Artlines will be about the ongoing copyright issue.

TD There are other issues like trademark law which is designed to protect business reputation, to protect logos and images. But a lot of people have pointed out that our social selves are increasingly constructed out of trade marks. An American scholar has said that perhaps the only shared cultural memory in America is the death of Bambi. “Bambi” is a registered trade mark of Disney Corp.

KG I went to a lexicography seminar where I heard that Velcro was giving the Pocket Oxford, I think, a hard time for using ‘velcro’ as a verb. They wanted it to appear only with a capital V, only as a noun, and with the copyright marker. They were not happy with what was being said with ‘velcro’ in Australian English.

TD Velcro is a trademark, but it’s also part of our language. Who owns it?

KG You feature an interview with Hou Leong who has incorporated his head and sometimes body photographically into iconic images of Australian men. What kind of procedures does he go through to be allowed to use some of the images, like the “I’m Australian as Ampol” image?

TD I guess it was an ironic comment on the mass media’s acceptance of multiculturalism. Hou sought and got the permission of Ampol and the advertising agency. The question as to whether or not he should have done that is unclear. A lawyer will always say be safe rather than be sorry. He was advised by Arts Law that the safest thing to do is to write a letter to these people and get permission.

KG It raises issues about the artist as subversive, doesn’t it? As soon as you ask permission you compromise yourself to a degree.

TD That’s right but Hou wasn’t interested in that, only in the final image. It’s also interesting that he could only have produced the works using digital image manipulation. But at the same time, he doesn’t see himself as a digital artist. In his view it is another tool.

KG Artlines also provides definitions of techno-terminology (bandwidth, flaming, hypermedia) information on Australian Film Commission and other sources of assistance for multimedia developments, e-mail and Web addresses for artsites, as well as publications and seminars pertaining to the legal issues. How long will Artlines have to go to print and what is its majority audience?

TD We had a conference recently on getting started in multimedia and online publishing. It was excellent to see the large number of artists turn out at the Art Gallery of NSW. We do get a lot of what you would call ‘suits’ at our seminars, but at this one they were in the minority, so that was good sign that artists are interested in the issues. I suppose we are in a transitional stage between the offline and the online world, and during that transitional period at least, there is a need for a continuing, printed source of information and public seminars.

Artlines is published by the Arts Law Centre of Australia, 02 358 2566

RealTime issue #10 Dec-Jan 1995 pg. 22

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1995