Artists, Royalties, and the Question of Ownership

What do we actually own? It’s a question that seems like it should be fairly straightforward, unless you assume you own a Kindle book, an iPhone, an online game, and — most recently — a piece of artwork.

In February, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) sponsored the American Royalties Too (A.R.T.) Act, which “expands copyright owners’ exclusive rights, in the case of a work of visual art, to include the right to collect or authorize the collection of a royalty if the work is sold by a person other than the author for at least $5,000 in an auction.”

Slate’s Whitney Kimball has an interesting look at this potential new law, noting that many visual artists, unlike musicians or authors, do not make money from royalties and do not earn money late in life if their works suddenly become popular (Kimball uses the example of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” which didn’t become a wedding-reception staple until it was used in Animal House nearly 20 years after release).

Of course, the most interesting part of the Slate piece comes when Kimball asks working artist William Powhida what he thinks of the proposed law:

“As something of a midcareer artist approaching 40, I have never made enough money from art sales to quit my day job as an art educator,” Powhida, who teaches art at a Brooklyn high school, reflected recently over email. “A painter I know incredulously questioned me about my commercial success: ‘Come on, you’re the most famous artist I know, and you can’t make $40,000 a year doing this?’ While my friend was half-joking, I think his comment revealed the gap between being a commercially successful artist and having a successful art career.”

Will receiving part of the cut for works sold at auction help artists like Powhida? Will this bill further blur the lines of “ownership?” Is it fair to ask art investors (because that’s who we’re really talking about here, the people who buy an artist’s early work in the hope that it will appreciate in value) to share their profits with the artist?

I vote an enthusiastic YES for questions one and three, and a sadder YES for question two.

What do you all think?

Photo: BurnAway

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