Friday, July 12, 2019

Richard Prince is Right

I don't mean Prince is right about every little detail, but in broad strokes, he's right. Let me clarify that: Prince was right about everything. Every. Single. Thing. Richard Prince, on the other hand, might not be right about this detail or that detail, here or there, although he is in broad strokes right.

First of all, let's clear away some underbrush, and then I'll get in to exactly what I mean.

The standard photographer position on intellectual property is, roughly, that photographers should be allowed to practice their craft pretty darn broadly. Photographing anyone, anywhere, any time, perhaps within some reasonable and not very stringent limits ought to be permitted. This results in pictures, which belong in every conceivable sense to the photographer and only the photographer, regardless of the nature of the pictures. Turning this around a little and rephrasing, photographers seem to think that intellectual property rights fall in to two categories: Mine and Irrelevant.

Ok, maybe there's a hint of cynicism there. But that is kinda what it feels like. Your face? Your building? Your car? Your house? It's mine. My photos? Also mine.

Ideas like Copyright showed up in an era when it was possible but not easy to copy things. Things like books, and plays, and engravings, and paintings. Later, the idea was extended to photographs, recordings, movies. Each of these objects also took a certain amount of effort to copy.

The idea of Intellectual Property was conceived to provide incentives to creatives, it grants creatives an enforceable basket of rights, rights which they could use to generate money, or simply hold on to. The idea was to encourage creatives to continue to create. If a writing a useful or popular book resulted in no positive result for he author, the author might reasonably take up another trade, and some did before the idea of Copyright arose and was passed in to law.

These ideas slammed into the digital age at a substantial fraction of the speed of light, producing a great deal of heat and light, but nothing much good has resulted.

First of all, the enforcabilty has simply evaporated. There is essentially no hope of enforcing copyright. Anything anyone actually wants is available. Someone has already copied it, and made it available. Some industries have shrugged this off: music, movies. Their model is to sell it to you streaming, which is actually easier than stealing it at a price point that is close enough to zero that most people will simply pay.

Other industries, like photography, are flailing, in part because it cannot invent a way to sell product that is easier than stealing it, mainly because stealing a photo is absurdly easy.

Secondly, the ability to turn your work in to money seems to be largely separate from copyright in this day and age. There are photographers making a living, and the abject failure of copyright enforcement doesn't seem to be an issue for them. The market collapse of photography is related to the fact that the cost of entry is nearly zero, not due to the collapse of copyright.

Which leads us around to the last point which is, in our modern and relatively affluent society, motivating people to create by offering them a livelihood seems to have fallen by the wayside. Authors seem to lose money at least as often as they make it, and yet books continue to be written. There certainly seem to be a lot of photographs made. Very few painters make any money at all, and yet there is a lot of painting going on, and so on. The road to music success is to record songs in your bedroom and stick them on YouTube, and if you are very very very lucky you will make money eventually doing live performances (rarely on selling recorded music.)

So, on many axes, in many dimensions, the century old concepts of and rationales behind copyright and intellectual property have collapsed.

Copyright at this point is largely used (successfully) by large corporations to prevent smaller players from re-using material held by the large coroporation, which may or may not have had anything to do with the creation of the material. Try obtaining the rights to use a poem, a quotation, or a photograph in your book. Try using a song in your movie. It rapidly turns into a nightmare, and is hit-or-miss at best.

So, copyright does not seem to be doing much to stimulate creativity, but it is stifling it.

You could probably jump in here and tell me about your cousin's friend's sister who something something whatever and so, but that's not the point. The point is that an argument, a good argument, can be made that in broad strokes copyright specifically, and intellectual property in general, is doing more harm than good these days. It is stifling creativity rather more than it is stimulating it.

For reference, I didn't invent this argument, it is an argument other (better) creatives than I have been making.

Intellectual Property (don't get me started on patents) is upside down and backwards. Intellectual Property is a concept that is overdue for a good thorough rethink.

Which brings us back around to Richard Prince.

Whatever else his art is about, it is at least a kind of performance art based around litigation (not unlike Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "wrapping things" projects.) The performances are often aimed at criticizing contemporary ideas of Intellectual Property, and of exploring the limits, legally and morally. He appears to be contesting our ideas, here.

Someone needs to take a good hard go at punching contemporary ideas about Intellectual Property in the nose, since they're not working for anyone. Prince, whether you agree with this project or that, is definitely standing up there and trying to bloody that nose, that nose that needs to be bloodied good and thoroughly, so we can get to work on something that might actually work.


  1. Richard Prince is a holed garbage scow, taking his collectors' investments to the bottom.

  2. Start with Disney, and then have a crack at the music industry. Or maybe the estates of musicians who seem increasingly willing to sue for breach of copyright.
    Cheers, Not THAT Ross Cameron