Q&A with Dr Oliver Watts

We chat with the inaugural artist director on the Copyright Agency board, Dr Oliver Watts, about the benefits and implications of copyright, as well as new and existing initiatives for visual artists.

Why is copyright important?

Copyright is a wonderful invention, it takes something largely intellectual and artistic, and says that has value. William Hogarth was one of the first artists to really fight for it for visual arts. It is really an Enlightenment invention and I like that; when ideas became important there was a discussion of how to protect those. It comes up more times than you think to remind artists that even though they own an art object, there is another property, and invisible one, that still exists, that the artist still owns. Royalties and moral rights are important extensions on these invisible rights too. 

I think what is really important though is that artists, and NAVA and the Copyright Agency and other groups really keep on insisting on the rights of copyright. Unlike some other places in the world, copyright, and moral rights for example have not become really entrenched as an industry standard, as a part of commissioning for example. 

We talk a lot at NAVA about changing the way Australia perceives art and artists. Our vision for some time has been has been that visual culture is central to Australian life, and that artists lead the national cultural agenda. One avenue to reach the Australian public is to increase visibility on all mainstream media platforms. You raised some interesting provocations on the invisibility of art in TV and film last year as part of the Copyright Agency's Voice of the Artist: Age of the Image forum presented in partnership with Vivid Sydney. What are the barriers and implications for art and artists on TV and film?

The dark side of copyright is that if there is a power imbalance, copyright can be used as a sword by other interests, and not as a shield. The talk you are speaking about I mentioned reality television shows which are such powerful taste makers, whether that is design shows or the Kardashians. The problem with those shows is that they are made with the intention of being both cheap and fast. They don't allow time to get copyright clearances and don't budget to pay copyright owners. The outcome of this is that art is pixelated in scenes, or on design shows they "paint their own art" instead of bringing real artwork in.

In film and television it seems like the only people that have art in dramas is the villain. Somehow art is no longer for the middle class but only for the powerful elites. This is definitely repeated in television and film. There is a great distrust of art. I feel that we have to work on the respect, access and appreciation of art in general.  

What is the Copyright Agency currently working on to change industry values and standards to make art more accessible but still fair for artists?

My major bug bear at the moment is that even professional architects and designers, with time and money, have forgotten how to commission and use artwork. Some countries that have moral rights and other ideas around art have had these mechanisms in place for over one hundred years. Australia only got moral rights in 2001 and to my knowledge there have been very few court cases that have helped define it in the Australian context. We are still working to create industry standards around copyright and the Arts Law Centre of Australia and NAVA have been great at pointing out breaches of best practice. 

There really is still a lot of work to be done to impress upon users of copyright material what fairness is. To start this process it is crucial that artists are not afraid to speak up for their rights in this regard. To get proper attribution, to make sure that at a click of a button the scale or colour does not change without your permission, or in worst case scenarios I have heard of does not totally repurpose your artwork without your input. 

The world of business, publishing and building works very fast, time is money in a very real way, but if copyright factors are taken in from the beginning, then I can't see why it can't be worked into project schedules and contracts in a very efficient and mutually beneficial way. 

You also mentioned in your talk last year that while art is being avoided on TV and film, artists' works and images are readily available on everyone's smartphones. The ACCC has launched an inquiry into the impact of digital platforms on media and advertising markets in Australia. What do you think are the main points artists should address in their submissions to the inquiry?

On one hand I think digital platforms obviously have made changes to the way we do things but on the other and I think this is why I started with my point about copyright being an amazing intellectual invention, copyright still functions. The digital world has only really affected delivery but you don't want to get carried away too much about the shock of the new. 

You can see that as Instagram for example was being used more and more by artists and professional photographers they had to change their approach to copyright and they have highlighted now that Instagram does NOT take the copyright from the copyright owner. The fact that it did in the beginning has added to the commonly held belief that it still does. Personally I feel comfortable sharing things online in an open way. As someone who teaches as well I find it interesting that digital media for example is so hard to find, while JPEGs are easier. I can't see why a video artist can't upload low res versions to Vimeo or YouTube (with a password if necessary), and while building their profile still sell hi-res boxed version to market. 

Again the problem of power imbalances does affect the risk we take when we treat a platform generously and they don't reciprocate. 

The Copyright Agency and Viscopy formally merged late last year. What is the impact of this merger for visual artists and what changes are being made as a result?

Viscopy had been working for a number of years with the Copyright Agency under a service agreement and following the success of that partnership we have now formally merged. The Viscopy team is still all there and if anything, with the better backroom support that the Copyright Agency provides, I think that the team will be able to work even harder for visual arts. 

Another major factor looking at some of the things we have already discussed is that copyright, especially in the digital world, is under quite a lot of pressure, especially from the digital big players who really want everything as open source as possible, sometimes to their own benefit. It is great to lobby on these issues with a united front, where artists, publishers, and writers stand side by side. 

Practically I would really like to encourage more people to join. There are no membership fees and we are currently reviewing the administration costs to further benefit artists. There will be continued and I think augmented support for artists through the Cultural Fund and the Resale Royalty Scheme. The Copyright Agency is constantly looking for better ways to support and pay artists. A new initiative that I am really excited about is the Image Royalty Claim which has a pool of $1 million; please become a member and get your name in the ring for that one. The Copyright Agency really takes seriously and honours its mandate to pay artists their fair share and the more members we have the more able we are to do that, and the stronger we are to fight for artist's interests. 

I am really proud to be the inaugural board member representing visual artists and I look forward to maintaining a close relationship with NAVA and their great team of advocates.

For more information or to join the Copyright Agency, click here.

Photo: Joan Cameron-Smith.