nettime roving correspondent on Wed, 6 May 1998 07:08:49 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> artists vs geeks


Mattison Fitzgerald is an artist and founder of the
"Protect Art It's Not Shareware" campaign.
Artist takes on Net's free culture 'Geeks are cultural
illiterates,' complains painter from Silicon Valley

By Brock N. Meeks


WASHINGTON, May 1--Internet culture is steeped in the
hacker mentality of writing code and making it freely
available to all. An old, thread-bare maxim of the Net
is that "information wants to be free." Artist Mattison
Fitzgerald, though, will have none of it. Deluged with
hundreds of requests from "geeks that are cultural
illiterates," wanting to appropriate her artwork, free
of charge, Fitzgerald fires back: "It's art, not

THE WEB IS a seductive medium for artists. It affords
artists the opportunity to expose their work to
audiences in numbers and on a scope that had been
reserved for only the most famous. But there's a
downside as well: how do artists protect their work and
get compensated fairly for its use in a culture that
essentially treats art like shareware? Enter "Protect
Art It's Not Shareware" or PAINS, the work of
Fitzgerald, a San Jose, Calif.-based fine artist in
"Silly Icon Valley," as she calls it. PAINS is more a
concept than organization, along the lines of the Net's
"blue ribbon" anti-censorship campaign. "It's sort of
like a resource type of thing," she says. "I'd like
people to put [the PAINS logo] on their site and just
let people be aware that cultural property has a
value." In the midst of all the requests for free
artwork, Fitzgerald learned that her painting "Start
Giving" was being used, without permission, by a site
that allowed people to use it as a kind of "postcard"
to be sent from user to user. 

Fitzgerald has received dozens of letters of support
for PAINS. "As far as I know, art has never been
shareware unless it's graffiti," said Hank Grebe,
founder of Media Spin Interactive, a graphics design
company. "The walls of the World Wide Web are not
public subway corridors." "This is more than a tiny
issue," Fitzgerald says. "Geeks wanting creative
property for free ... they are embarrassingly out of
line and uneducated in the creative arts. Who are these
cultural illiterates kidding?"

[SIDEBAR: VOTE: Should artists be paid for their work
that appears on Web sites?

O   Yes, they deserve to make a living, too.
O   No, artists should embrace the culture of the Net
    and allow free use.]

And there's the economics. "The problem is that people
don't understand what goes into the art," Fitzgerald
said. "It costs me $100,000 to run an art studio, and
art needs to be thought of as a product." Part of the
problem, Fitzgerald acknowledges, is that there is no
precedent for how to value artwork on a Web site. Do
you charge a one-time fee, a license agreement? "We
have to work that all out," she says.

NO CONSENSUS According to "Artists on the Internet," a
research paper authored by University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign professors Ann Bishop and Joseph
Squier, artists expressed no overwhelming concern "with
issues of reward or the protection of intellectual
property." The artists interviewed by Bishop and Squier
said they hadn't given much thought to the potential
dangers of exposing their work on the Net. "Some felt
that you should just jump in and see what happened,"
they wrote. "The sense was that you knew enough about
the workings of the Internet to realize that you
couldn't retain complete control over your work."

Bishop and Squier did find that artists didn't want
others to take credit for their work or profit from it.
That work, though, is dated. It was published in 1995
when the Web was little more than a novelty. Its
conclusions, however, match the experience of Katherine
Spiering, owner of, an online gallery
where artists pay a flat rate to show their work. 

"I don't see a lot of image-pirating on the Net at
all," says Spiering. "But I think the good aspects of
[showing art on the Web] outweighs the bad."

And even if images displayed in Spiering's online
gallery were pirated, there's not much commercial gain
to be taken from them, she argues. "If you download a
JPEG and print it out or try and put it into something
like photoshop it would totally fragment," she says. A
bigger danger for artists, Spiering says, is when an
artist's portfolio lands in the wrong hands. Those
portfolios, "are 100 times more reproducible than
something off the Internet," she says. To some extent,
the "free" culture of the Net has to be taken into
account when people ask to use artwork, Spiering said.
"And as long as it's not for commercial use, I don't
know how you can really control that. Personally, I
think it would be sort of flattering." That view
doesn't fly with Fitzgerald. She's got a simple message
to any "culturally illiterate geek" asking for free
artwork: "Tell them to bring a checkbook."
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