Think of this as Volume 14, Number 23 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
It is said that Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear because he couldn't sell his stuff. And that he never did. (Image from Wikipedia.)
The great artists of the 20th century learned this lesson well. Picasso, Dali and Andy Warhol were all relentless self-promoters. They knew that art which isn't seen does not exist, and that an artist's personal style is what he sells during his lifetime.
Somehow, we've gone backward in the era of the Web.
The lesson of my run-in with Chris Buzelli and his friends is clear. No Web site can use a thumbnail of someone else's art without the artist's express permission. This is what artists say they want.
Technically, this position even prevents links. If I write a piece of HTML code linking to a graphic image, and give the a href command properly, my browser will go to the location of that image and copy it, in the size I specify, onto the page I'm writing.
That's the way HTML works.
But to self-important artists if I write such a link I'm a thief. I'm a double thief, because I have not only stolen art but bandwidth to display it on my Web page. Thus you don't even link to art without permission.
What galls me is that artists believe they don't have to watermark, they don't have to use robots.txt, they can post their stuff completely in the clear. Ghanaians know to protect their images (try downloading an image from this page) but American artists can depend on webmobs.
The default with images is, don't touch, don't link. So we don't. I won't.
My purpose in writing today is not to litigate the question of legal right. Nor even the moral right to link. I won't link to anyone's copyrighted image henceforth, without a Creative Commons license or a Wikimedia address. Neither will anyone at CBS Inc., nor, I gather, any other media outlet.Instead I'm arguing that forbidding links, or thumbnails, is counter-productive. It's as dumb as Nikkei forbidding links to its home page or the London Times charging for access.
It's as stupid as Van Gogh cutting off his ear.
If I have learned one thing in my years online, and I've been online for over a quarter century, it's that a Web page that isn't seen does not exist. (Art by Roland Heath. From my wall. By permission of the artist.)
The Internet is all about links. Pages without links are cul de sacs. That's why, even if you're charging for site access, as The Wall Street Journal does, you want to leave some of your stuff out there, and publicize its existence far and wide. It's called selling. And if you don't sell you starve.
Well, artists can't sell. They have made all their sites into cul de sacs, by insisting on their legal rights. By doing so they have placed themselves at the mercy of lawyers and agents, of people who do not have their best interests at heart.
Oh, an artist's agent will claim to have those interests at heart. They will proclaim it far and wide. They will insist they are the only person in the world who can find their artists an audience. And because every Web site with a piece of art on it is a cul de sac, they're right.
The difference between these agents and Lou Pearlman is only one of degree. He took advantage of musicians who had no other outlet to the market. Artist agents and lawyers who reject links to art do the same thing.
But what does that mean in practical terms? It means that an artist can't have their work seen without going through an agent, and paying that agent whatever commission they demand. At least until they're selling well enough to get a better deal.
Because putting a "Creative Commons" license on a Web page won't get your stuff seen. People who create Web pages have learned, some the hard way, that you can't be certain. A license like the Creative Commons grant can be withdrawn. The artist or their agent may not like the "environment" in which their art is "displayed" some day, pull back the grant, and then demand that their art be taken down, ex post facto.
So we don't use it. No one uses it. Art that is protected by copyright does not exist on most of the Web, even though videos are common. Thanks to agents, lawyers, and web mobs .
Look, I'm in the copyright industry myself. I don't make a dime from this Web site. My only purpose in writing here is to convince editors that I'm worth hiring. But those editors, unlike artists' agents, are smart. They're active users of Search Engine Optimization, of social networks like Twitter, they use RSS feeds as much as they can. Because they want to sell their stuff. Which means doing everything they can, legally, to get it seen, not doing everything they can, legally, to keep it from being seen.
Chris Buzelli is a better artist than I am a writer. But I suspect I earn more than he does. There is a reason. Because my work is seen and his usually isn't.
I am not saying art has no monetary value. It's one of several lies artists have told, been told, and believed in the wake of what one editor recently called "DanaGate". But the value of any piece of work -- the value of my work, the value of an artist's work -- depends entirely on that work being seen. If no one read my stories I couldn't make any money from them. There are literally hundreds of thousands of artists like Roland Heath who can't earn that living because their work is new, because their agents are incompetent, or because they don't have an agent. And they can't self-promote because no one will use their stuff -- unless there's a personal friendship.
By standing up for how the Web works, and for the business reality of art, I have paid a price. I have been stripped of one of my blogs, had one third of my income taken from me. Any artist, agent, or lawyer who wants to make me a laughingstock and an example to all other writers who might consider using an artist's work without their express written permission has won, and they are free to discredit me from now until the Web fades away.
But they are wrong. They are doing their clients no favors. The artists themselves are doing themselves no favors. They have gone from being Warhol to being Van Gogh again at a stroke, and no one will even see them with their ears cut off anymore.
Until artists demand release.
This is my last effort in that direction. All I can offer at this point is a Clue, and then shut up. But I know I'm right, and that the web mobs are wrong. Maybe not legally, maybe not morally, but in terms of what I know, in terms of business and the Web itself. In terms of the market.