A more sustainable business model for artists—own your work and get paid via property rights on the blockchain
A TEDx talk by Bitmark advisor: Amy Whitaker
“We live in an age of democratized creativity, but not yet democratized ownership.”
Anyone working in the arts knows the greatest plight of an artist is finding a sustainable business model that simultaneously, (1) generates enough interest from patrons and income to afford materials to continue creating work while also (2) allowing unencumbered time to create. It’s a fine and tricky balance, and one that plagues all types of artists: writers, painters, choreographers, directors, designers, the list is long.
“Two fears I think we all have: the fear of not being able to make a living, and the fear of not being true to yourself creatively.”
Many artists find comfort in creating commissioned work: finding an established partnership where a patron funds the entire project and the artist is freed from the task of raising the money for project or personal expenses. A patron might allow a large budget for a work of art, but oftentimes, the higher the budget, the more particular the parameters of the project. This influence extends into pleasing the patron’s whim or ideas of what the artist should create. Additionally, in a commissioning partnership, the patron owns the artwork, not the artist.
Maybe this structure feels outdated, but it’s not; the same set-up happens all the time for artists who receive grants, which in the arts is the most common way to fund work (and also happens to make up the highest percentage of funding for most projects). Any artist who applies to receive grant money must also report back to the grant organization on their progress. It is often the case that if an artist does not fulfill the grant requests, money is either taken back or not given at all.
Artists who choose the different path of funding their own work can get bogged down by spending time making money (i.e. a “day job”) that leaves them with little time for their art.
A new potential solution: ownership rights
Intertwined with this time versus money conundrum is the concept of ownership. Selling artwork is the most traditional way of making money in this particular field. But, any notion of selling, first requires a clear notion of ownership. Plagiarism in all art forms is rampant. And it’s only become worse because social media platforms are a great tool to engage large audiences and followers, to accumulate views and shares and likes, but the copying and freely sharing have ruined many artists’ ability to claim ownership of their creative works. And clear ownership is a coveted thing.
Blockchain isn’t a panacea for all issues that artists face. However, specific types of blockchains can provide artists with a way to establish ownership of their work, which in turn facilitates clear exchanges with others and leaves them with a more sustainable, efficient way to be paid for the work they create.
Amy Whitaker, an NYU professor, artist and researcher, describes eloquently in the TEDx talk posted below how the blockchain can help amend many woes for artists (in both digital and physical mediums) by providing a tool to register ownership rights of their works.
As Amy describes in a WSJ article, the formulation of blockchain technology came about to organize information and data in a more truthful, secure and efficient way. The decentralized structure of a blockchain means is set up by having “many dispersed but interconnected copies of a shared ledger. The truth could never be typed over if there were too many linked ledgers to alter.”
Blockchain provides the backbone to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum — this immutable, truthful ledger is what solves the double spending problem (the act of spending the same tokens in two places and getting away with it) in those currency systems. A blockchain set up specifically to record property rights employs a set of digital rules (basically a secure transfer system that enables you to share or sell an asset or property without “double spending” that property and tricking the system or your potential buyer) that ensures your property is yours and not anyone else’s — not even the platform where you register the property. The Bitmark blockchain, for example, is public and open source. It is decentralized, with complete transparency for all parties who wish to see its contents (not the secure details of data and personal information, rather just the ownership titles and transfers). It is structured to register property rights at minimal fees, and set up to essentially issue legal (not smart) contracts with any buyer or seller at scale.
Ownership rights are twofold: 1 claiming the artwork as personal property means defining the work as well as the entity who owns it; 2 establishing the rights of that property: fair use of the image in other forms (prints, posters, cards, etc), and payment if and when the work is sold, or used in the case of licensing.
When artists can clearly register their work as personal property, buyers can then request to buy their work. The artist can receive payment upfront before they transfer the title of the work to the buyer.
With ownership rights, artists can benefit in the following ways:
- Limit issues around fraud and copying — The blockchain is a digital ledger, with immutable time stamping that is public. When something is registered on the blockchain, it’s permanent, which mitigates questions of who owns what when looking at copies of art work.
- Enable faster payments — Because the blockchain can be linked to banks and digital currencies, artists can get paid faster than with traditional models.
In the TEDx talk below, Amy describes how the blockchain can help artists:
For further reading, check out Amy’s original whitepaper “The Social Life of Artistic Property” and her previous academic paper “Artist as Owner Not Guarantor: The Art Market from the Artist’s Point of View.”