Toward a Copyright Bank: Tracking How Art is Used

By Brad Holland

Because the U.S. currently has no means of tracking the individual usage of art, the essential goal of an American licensing and collecting society for illustrators should be to institute the means necessary to track usage.

This technology is already available. At the IPA, we’ve researched it and we believe it could be implemented if we can find and focus the necessary resources. Properly employed, this technology would make it possible to track not only reprographic usage, but all forms of usage. This would aid in detecting piracy and infringement. Moreover, if artists chose to pool their copyrights in a Copyright Bank (as songwriters have done with ASCAP for 90 years), it would allow individual illustrators to keep working as they do now, but with the means to protect their rights collectively.

Rights-management can be achieved by digitally embedding a persistent identity tag linked to an artists’ registry in every work of art delivered to a client. This would identify the authorship of each work, and regardless of the artist’s and the artwork’s changing locations, it would maintain a link between the two through the Copyright Bank.

New technology for managing extensible data will allow contractual information about the work and a history of the image’s usage to stay with the image and “travel” with it, reporting any new usage back to the artists’ registry.

This registry would make it possible for potential users to know what rights the artist has made available for licensing and which he or she has reserved. Users can then license available rights at the artist’s discretion, according to the artist’s terms. The Copyright Bank would remit fees back to the artists.

Publishers are already embedding Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) in the work they distribute (over 10 million already in place). By tagging each article, illustration, photograph, map or chart within a collective work (the issue of a publication, for example), they’re preparing for a future in which they can not only license the published compilation as a whole, but also the separate elements of the collective work. What does this mean?

It means that a publisher will be able to license your work to third parties for new usage without your knowledge and with no additional payment. And this accounts for the increasing demands we’ve been seeing for all-rights contracts (it saves the publisher administrative time to know that they have a legal right to every component of the collective work).

This is where the future of our business is heading and it has been happening under our noses with only minimal awareness on our part.

Unless we act to protect our work, publishers will continue to build the technological infrastructure they need to accumulate rights through all-rights demands, retroactive contracts, lobbying efforts to revise Section 201-C of the Copyright Act, infringement or by simply licensing the copyrighted work of artists without acknowledgement, as the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) is already doing. (Since its inception in 1976, no visual creators or their organizations have succeeded in getting the CCC to acknowledge the authorship of American illustrators.)

At the IPA, we’ve had several fruitful discussions with a company that can supply the necessary technology to the illustration community for a reasonable price. The question is whether we can locate the seed money, create the infrastructure to make it effective and negotiate a business arrangement with publishers that would make this step beneficial to publishers and artists alike.

We need to emphasize one last point: Participation in a Copyright Bank would be voluntary. All artists — if they chose to do so — could continue to sell their copyrights to clients, sign all-rights agreements or waive their reprographic rights. A Copyright Bank would not compel universal compliance. It would simply be an option which artists don’t have currently for protecting their work.

To the contrary, it’s the current system which risks compelling universal surrender of rights to publishers, because the current system gives publishers the power to enforce all-rights agreements by threatening to withhold assignments from those who don’t give up their rights.

Brad Holland
Illustrators News, June 2003