Artists have earned payment: Please don’t rip them off!

I can’t claim to know all of the backstory, but this blog post came through on my Twitter feed yesterday. Its content matter—the morality of acquiring copyrighted material without paying for it—of course caught my attention.

Not only am I a photographer with quite a few friends and acquaintances also involved in creating and selling visual art, I used to be a singer before becoming ill; therefore, the issue of making sure we don’t muzzle the ox that treads the grain (a Biblical exhortation) is important to me indeed. As most of us sell our work online, we’ve all had our work stolen—used without our permission. This even happens to jewelry artists and others making handcrafted goods; they find their own photos used on other websites. Finally, we’re all familiar with cases where a large company steals the idea of a small artist—Urban Outfitters is particularly infamous for this.

But in the end, it doesn’t matter who does the stealing, or why: it is the artist—musician, designer, painter, photographer—who is hurt, and it is the artist who has indeed been denied payment for genuine work, labour, and talent. This, my friends, is simply not right (particularly when so many independent artists, myself included, are more than happy to consider swaps of goods in kind

John's Modern Cabins on Old Route 66

Menaced, Route 66

instead of cash). We all wish to be paid for our work, no matter what it is we do—and if we do work, we have earned payment.

Anyhow. The Trichordist says it really marvellously in a post directed toward NPR intern Emily White. White proclaimed to the world that despite only paying for 15 CDs in her life, she has 11,000 songs in her music library.  I heartily encourage you to read the entire post, but I want to share a few excerpts with you, my readers, here (mostly to whet your appetite for the rest; please note that I’ve added any bolding to the text in order to emphasize things that struck me). Though the post mostly concerns musicians, it could very easily apply to creators in all facets of art and entertainment.

Rather than using our morality and principles to guide us through technological change, there are those asking us to change our morality and principles to fit the technological changeif a machine can do something, it ought to be done. Although it is the premise of every “machines gone wild” story since Jules Verne or Fritz Lang, this is exactly backwards….The fundamental shift in principals and morality is about who gets to control and exploit the work of an artist. The accepted norm for hudreds of years of western civilization is the artist exclusively has the right to exploit and control his/her work for a period of time. …By allowing the artist to treat his/her work as actual property, the artist can decide how to monetize his or her work. This system has worked very well for fans and artists. Now we are being asked to undo this not because we think this is a bad or unfair way to compensate artists but simply because it is technologically possible for corporations or individuals to exploit artists work without their permission on a massive scale and globally. We are being asked to continue to let these companies violate the law without being punished or prosecuted. We are being asked to change our morality and principles to match what I think are immoral and unethical business models.

There are, of course, people behind these machines: ripping music, stealing artwork. Few of us blame the spoon for making us fat, after all. The power technology gives us has been taken by some as permission to take—especially, I think, because there is no face to steal from, or that face is simply a static photo that is easily ignored.

What the corporate backed Free Culture movement is asking us to do is analogous to changing our morality and principles to allow the equivalent of looting. …We should change our morality and ethics to accept looting because it is simply possible to get away with it.  And nothing says freedom like getting away with it, right?

The Trichordist tells us about a hypothetical neighborhood where all of the shops are continually looted, with no consequences for the looters. Well worth reading—it is an easily understandable and succinct explanation, especially when it is pointed out that companies like Google and AT&T make money off of the looters’ looting. Trichordist also asks Ms. White why she will pay large amounts of money for things like a Metro Card, a phone data plan, et cetera—but not pay for music, thus denying the artists and musicians payment for their work. Considering the young lady’s proclaimed love for music versus the other things she is paying for, it does seem a bit odd that she pays for the means to acquire music, but not the music itself.

Why do we value the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself?

Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?

Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals who create and sell music?

…Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!


I suspect Ms. White and those like her simply don’t consider these things—maybe because, until now, the questions have not been asked. The moral shift occurred—it is acceptable to acquire copyrighted material and never pay for it—possibly before we even realized what was happening. Certainly small artists and musicians saw it going on—it has happened to me as well as fellow photographers, for instance—but the culture at large, those who define and discuss these things,

Always A Bridesmaid, Route 66 Missouri

didn’t know or speak about the concept of intellectual property theft until the shift had happened. By the time they figured it out and began to rap out white papers and pontificate, it was too late. As usual, technology seems to have moved so quickly that moral concerns were left in the dust wondering what in the world just happened.

That said, White blithely states, “I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums.” How is that right? How is that moral—or, to utilize the favourite word of this age, meaningless as the word can be, “fair” to all involved? But it seems to matter not: cheating the record companies out of a few dollars is, apparently, more important than making sure the artists are paid. In making a point, though (or so they think), the only ones truly hurting are the ones the “Free Culture” types proclaim to love and support.


Trichordist continues:

…you must live with the moral and ethical choice that you are making to not pay artists. And artists won’t be paid. And it won’t be the fault of some far away evil corporation. You “and your peers” ultimately bear this responsibility.

 …I also find this all this sort of sad.  Many in your generation are willing to pay a little extra to buy “fair trade” coffee that insures the workers that harvested the coffee were paid fairly.  Many in your generation will pay a little more to buy clothing and shoes from manufacturers that  certify they don’t use  sweatshops.  Many in your generation pressured Apple to examine working conditions at Foxconn in China.  Your generation is largely responsible for the recent cultural changes that has given more equality to same sex couples.  On nearly every count your generation is much more ethical and fair than my generation.  Except for one thing.  Artist rights.

“Rights” is a word with which we must be careful. However, there is indeed a “rights” aspect to being paid for one’s work.  An artist or musician has worked, they have promoted said work, they have delivered said work. Therefore, they have earned payment, a reward. If “rights” are defined as “something to which one has just claim; something that one may properly claim as due”, then, yes, artists do indeed have rights.

Yet there is a bigger point: If you want more art, more music—you had better make sure those producing those things are rewarded for their work (and no, attribution is not enough in most cases). If artists of any sort find they are no longer being paid for what they do, and, worse, others are making money off their efforts while they themselves struggle to keep on—why on earth should they continue producing? Due to the rotten economy, I’ve watched dozens of artists I know give up—with and without their work being stolen. Why are they giving up? They aren’t being paid for the work they are doing. Therefore, they move on. They quit, no matter how much they love what they do. Indeed, they may keep producing—but it is no longer shared or offered. They perform to an empty room.

Threshold of an abandoned Route 66 tourist cabin in Missouri

Threshold, John’s Modern Cabins, Route 66

You see, by not paying artists and artisans for our work, you are robbing us not just of cash, but encouragement that our work is worth something more than just your attention. That transaction tells us that you appreciate what we do enough to pay for it. Just taking it and using it, even with attribution, is a hurtful insult: you like it enough to take it, but don’t care about the artist who made the work. Just because you can do something never means you should; powerful technology and the low likelihood of your being discovered and sued are not permission to take.

Don’t muzzle the ox that treads the grain. The workman is, indeed, worth the price of his labour—more so if you really, really want the results of that labour.

So please: Pay for what you consume and use. If you want to own a song, please buy it, because you’re not ripping off Sony, you are ripping off that artist and all of his or her musicians (and the people who work at the recording studio, too). If you would like to own or use a photo or painting you see online, don’t just nab the JPEG and print it out or use it in your work—contact the artist and ask if you may—and if they have a price for the usage, pay it or negotiate, but whatever you do, don’t just take the piece anyhow, sneering that the artist is greedy and full of themselves.

We aren’t.

If you think your work has earned a paycheck, after all, why would you look at artists any differently just because their work is “fun”?

Again, read the entire post at Trichordist.


2 thoughts on “Artists have earned payment: Please don’t rip them off!

  1. I have issues with Lowery’s outlook. He consistently brings out the Spotify numbers (which have been detailed here – as a stumbling block to artists attempting the DIY music scene.

    I think DIY is not for everyone, but it’s the way technology is progressing. So you can sit on the sidelines and be angry about it, as Lowery does, or you can learn to adapt.

    Having said this, I do not disagree that artists (being a digital artist myself) should be paid for their work, and I think piracy has had a negative impact on things.

  2. I’ll be honest, I’m not terribly familiar with the Spotify controversy.

    Also, not sure what you mean about “DIY is not for everyone”. How does that excuse anyone stealing an artist’s work, whatever form it may take? Thieves always adapt far more quickly than the producers, sadly.

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