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On World IP Day, it’s time the UK caught up with paying its artists fairly

For our 40th anniversary, artist Adele Morse contributes with a blog about her experience of copyright infringement and her hopes about the future of artists' rights.

As an artist, I often hear about the huge success story of the UK’s creative industries: it boosts the economy, provides jobs and skills, and creative output is globally recognised and loved. I am so happy to be a part of this, but working as an independent creator comes with challenges.

A third of creatives are self-employed or freelance, including the majority of artists which means we go without many of the protections and securities that a salaried job in other industries would provide. 

A report released by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee earlier this month, highlights what many artists and creatives like me already know - it’s getting much more difficult to sustain our careers despite growing demand for our work. Royalty payments are often overlooked as a supplementary source of income but in reality, they are fundamental to an artist’s survival. 

We need to update how we think about royalties, to future-proof our creative industries.

I assumed there was a fair system in place for paying for the use of an artist’s work, even as digital engagement grows, but, unfortunately, this is not the case.

In 2012 I created an artwork and placed the only photographs of the work on eBay. That image has now been viewed, copied, and edited by millions all over the world. This is how a taxidermy fox I made sitting on a chair became one of the first internet memes. He was jokingly named “stoned fox”. 

To put this in context, if you search ‘stoned fox’ on the world’s leading search engine you’ll receive close to 8 million results, this does not include the many more social media shares which dwarf that figure.

In the last 6 years, many more of my works have also “gone viral” amassing millions of views without asking my permission or crediting me as the artist, and with zero financial reward despite being used for others’ financial gain. My work is often used in commercial ways, for adverts and products without permission. I’ve had to spend so much time seeking legal help. 

For the most part, however, my work is shared by everyday people on their social media and amongst friends. I’ve had thousands of people from all walks of life – from doctors, patients, people dealing with incredibly hard times to my close friends – send me messages to say my images have helped them. I am eternally grateful to have made something that so many people can relate to. I never want that to stop, but I feel an obligation to help protect the next generation of artists from the negative experiences I’ve had. Having so many people know my work with no association to me and without fair recognition or pay has been a struggle, but it doesn’t need to be.

In the past, I’ve joked that if I had a penny for every time my work was shared, I would be rich, but it’s not an exaggeration. A payment as small as 1 pence per use could literally change my life. Unfortunately, my career is becoming increasingly uncertain. As a woman from a working-class background, when there are already so few of us in this sector, I fear this would make future generations less likely to become artists. Without a serious update on how creatives are paid, the quality and diversity on offer will decline.

The good news is we don’t need to pave the way here, a path has already been set for us by over 40 other countries who’ve found a simple solution to this complex problem – in the UK this solution is known as the Smart Fund. 

Research commissioned by DACS shows that employing the Smart Fund model could generate over £250 million per year. This would benefit a huge number of creators in the UK, such as writers, artists, and illustrators at ZERO cost to the government or the taxpayer. Countries like France, Germany, Japan, and others already use the Smart Fund model to ensure their copyright holders are entitled to small payments when their works are stored and copied across digital devices.

The companies selling the technology that relies on our content to be shared and stored on their consumers' devices pay the creatives so that the users don’t have to. This form of royalty payment is already happening in other sectors, but not so much in digital distribution.

The report from the Culture Media and Sport Committee published last week recommends that the Government implement a statutory system, like the Smart Fund, not only to bring revenue to creatives like me, but to also secure existing payments from similar schemes abroad.

With an arts industry worth nearly £50 billion a year, in a country that holds some of the most valuable creative IP in the world, why is the UK lagging behind in protecting and paying those who create all this?  Why continue to strangle the makers of one of our country's few remaining exports?

We all enjoy the work of creatives every day but with public funding for the arts being squeezed dry and Arts Council budgets evaporating completely we need a change. This would provide an essential source of income for the creative workforce. 

Foxes are intelligent, adaptable animals built to survive. Isn’t it time we adapt the legal frameworks of the UK so our creatives can have a chance to survive this increasingly difficult and unpredictable landscape?

Opinion piece originally published by the Arts Professional.

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