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Why it’s important to protect artistic copyright

Ella Murtha is the daughter of the late renowned British photographer Tish Murtha, best known for documenting the lives of marginalised communities and working-class life from the inside in the North-East of England. In this blog, Ella Murtha discusses the importance of protecting her mother's copyright and how DACS helped her resolve an unauthorised use of Tish's work.

In May 2022, I was alerted by friends in the visual artist photography community to the cover art for a new single by a music artist who had used a photo by a graphic designer engaged to create the cover art. It was a recreation of an image from my mam, Tish Murtha’s 1981 series "Youth Unemployment," with no credit to the original.

When I first saw the image, my instinct was to share it to see what other people thought about it. There was a mixed reaction. A lot of people were furious, but others argued that we don't create in a vacuum and all art is influenced by others. Initially, I had no idea that the copyright infringement could be resolved.

I have been a member of DACS since 2018 because it is very important to me that I protect the Tish Murtha archive with integrity, and that I have control over where my mam's work is shown. Tish was a social photographer and saw photography as a tool for change - she was motivated by documenting real people with humanity and compassion. The original image is of a young man called Tony "Cuddles" Collins, who had just left school at a time of high youth unemployment and who was living a difficult and hard life in Newcastle during a time when young people were alienated from the older generations who simply didn’t understand what they were going through. My Mam was part of this community and had built a bond with Tony and his friends who let her document their journey.

So aside from the issue of copyright protection, I feel strongly that understanding the context behind an image matters. It completes the story and helps our understanding of our social histories.

British social documentary photographer Tish Murtha smoking
Courtesy of the Tish Murtha Archive

As the custodian of my mam’s archive, it is my responsibility to make sure that her photos are protected and DACS helps me to do this.

I emailed all the information I had on the recreated image to DACS. They agreed that the work had been copied and worked with me at every step to help resolve the issue. I felt so supported. DACS was so mindful of my feelings throughout the whole process and kept me fully informed. 

We worked with the graphic designer and record company to reach a resolution that I was happy with that included changing the recreated image that had been used originally, and I think that everyone involved has learnt a lot. The graphic designer who re-created my mam’s image said the issue arose as he was not a professional photographer and was not aware that recreating the ‘composition’ of a photograph could be an infringement of its copyright. He also mentioned that he sadly had no knowledge of the context behind the original photograph itself, and that, as far as he was aware, it was a photograph that he had come across many years ago and admired without understanding its origins.

Education as to a copyright holder's rights continues to be important, which was one of the reasons why I felt compelled to write this blog piece. Collectively, we can all work to ensure and protect artist rights, and there is support out there. You don't have to do it alone. I know I would go straight to DACS if this happened again. I’m glad it has been resolved amicably and that everyone who has been part of this has learnt from it.

Ella Murtha is a member of DACS and manages the Tish Murtha archive. DACS manages the copyright and image licencing of the Tish Murtha archive.