The Perils of Publishing and Living Off your Art

Friday, 05 December 2014 18:46

The Perils of Publishing and Living Off your Art

by (guest blogger) Elspeth Rushbrook

"Don’t give up your day job", the sarcastic saying goes. But what if you don’t have one? Then it is imperative that artists – whatever they create, be it music, poetry, painting – be fairly and properly remunerated.

Which is why the Artists' Bill of Rights is important. It’s not just competitions that may relieve us of our work – leaving comments and reviews on newspaper, cinema, and listings websites can mean the legal adoption of any author's creative children without further custody. Typically, terms ask you to unconditionally waive your moral rights, to give away the copyright, and give them freedom to republish, pass on, reproduce and store eternally without royalty or further payment – if you received any. Often you have to sign up before these terms become viewable.

Some examples:

  • UK based Local Secrets "buys all copy rights and publication rights for use online and in any of its print publications in perpetuity…and may be republished at any time without further payment to (author)…who relinquishes all rights to the material".
  • Odeon (UK cinema chain) "…you assign any rights (including intellectual property rights) you may have in them to ODEON…and agree not to assert any moral rights in such comments or materials."
  • AmazonUser reviews grant perpetual, irrevocable, and royalty free licenses.
  • Triond where contributors were paid per view - if in the US. This site seems to be defunct

Whereas some companies use legal templates to cover themselves, the heaviness is overkill. Often, making a submission or use of a service implies you’ve read and agree and can be held to it; there’s no individual negotiation, but a case of the company imposing its one size fits all template. That's something that's all too common for something as simple as booking a ticket and using a website.

My question is – why can’t these terms be simpler, lighter and more appropriate? Why not just ask for the right to publish and display your work within the place you entered it for the purpose submitted and for a reasonable time?

And that no-one should ever wrest away your moral rights – it should be illegal to ask these to be waived. And that nothing should be granted irrevocably; services can repeal or end a contract, and so artists should be able to end their permanent permission to re-use their work.

It makes us weigh up – does this have benefits for me beyond these terms? So is my brilliant review something I’ll let them have for free in perpetuity if it means I might get picked up by a paying magazine who browses the site for quality writers? Might my artwork be spotted better on that website or through that competition than if I kept it to somewhere that I preserved my rights? Is that tiny fee better than none? Since I’m struggling to pay for essentials, can I say at least I’ve been published?

Too often as artists, we’re made to choose between an opportunity – such as winning a competition that might escalate our career or garner us much needed money – and compromising our ownership and fair pay.

It is not inappropriate, I don’t think, to call this and compare this to abuse. The patterns are true of this as other employment or domestic situations. One person stays in something not good for them because they believe it benefits them. They also believe they have no choice or, perhaps, that they’re not worth more.

I think that’s how abusers survive. I think challenge is so important.

And back to that day job: do we need one? Should we have one? That is not a question for me to answer.

I met an artist who was retraining as a counsellor: that is another passion and calling where he feels he’ll be able to work part time and continue with art. I completely understand that – though getting out of financial difficulty can often mean investing money in business or training – whether it be frames for an art show, paying literary consultants or borrowing to set up a retail business.

Many artists teach, though I see that as an equal passion and calling, too, not the side job (by default) as one of the few that seems expected, available and compatible. I think it depends on your values; on how much financial security means. You may have pressure from others whom you support, although I’d not recommend anyone being squashed and giving up something to placate others (not that I’m going to turn this into a relationship advice corner). I think it also depends if the other job gives pleasure, opportunity for you to improve your craft (even headspace to come up with ideas), professional contacts (e.g., working for an arts centre) or just people contact if you’re in your own head and home much of the time.

The trend of taking unrelated jobs as artists is unfortunate, for often it drains our creative juices (and takes time away from what we’d like to do) whilst we are in an environment that doesn’t nurture us. There’s also the issue of state support - which is probably one for another time – but we can be poorer for the day job we don’t like, and held back from attaining what we want to do. Really being a serious artist takes much commitment, it’s hard to progress when it’s an add-on.

What I mind most is that society currently isn’t showing value for what really matters. Retail goods, finances, services – these are things we pay for. Would you expect a baker to give away much of his or her bread for love of it? Or a breeder their pups? We rightly pay counsellors and ministers, but sadly many humanitarian deeds don’t carry the expectation of remuneration. And arts – living our passions, literally brightening lives - are things we consider mere extras. Perhaps it’s because artists and campaigners are often non conformists that it’s made so hard for us to earn solely from what we do, but the big organisations who are often rich shouldn’t be those dictating terms and what is – that word again – valuable. But who’d like to live in a home with no pictures, no music or film playing devices, or never go out and enjoy film, theatre, concerts and galleries? These don’t just amuse; they inspire, challenge, lift – and I say I sample the arts to remember who I am. They are about the highest and most valuable part of being human, more than capitalist wheels turning. Yet, we surprise people if we ask for a fee. Well – start surprising!

If your service or product (to reduce our art to the economic model) are worthy of living off, so are mine. This is my rate. And the more of us who demand this, who don’t give up rights and fair pay, means that it will effect a change in the market.

Elspeth is a British campaigner, writer of fiction (she's rounding off her final edit of her first novel, sneak preview here), poetry, articles, speaker, artist and composing musician.