Rowan Derryth's Virtual Adventures
I am not usually one to criticise Linden Labs, I think they have their wonderful aspects, and areas that need improvement. But last night they left me incredibly disappointed. Before I explain, indulge me while I give you some background. You might be entertained: it is a tale of gorgeous art, and misdirection!
Those who know me well know that one of my very favourite paintings is Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A sensuous, incredibly beautiful portrait of his muse Jane Morris, Rossetti wrote an equally seductive poem to accompany it, an ode to his desire for the model which includes the lines:
Her twofold girdle clasps the infinite boon
Of bliss whereof the heaven and earth commune…
Translation: her belt, which winds under her breasts and about her hips, highlights her seductively saucy bits that Rossetti desires. The painting and poem shocked Victorians for its overt sexuality, which is perhaps part of why we love it today.
Pre-Raphaelite art is ubiquitously reproduced today on everything from dorm-room posters to coffee mugs. Like the Impressionists, their colourful and beautiful canvases are safe and comfortable to contemporary audiences, and museums and collectors who own the originals make a neat profit on reproductions rights. As an art historian, I don’t actually have a huge problem with this; it assists in keeping the majority of these collections open and free to the public (at least in Europe). And I love the irony of my coffee thermos with Munch’s The Scream on it.
So, why am I opening this issue up here? Last night, I found myself at the TOC Gallery (Touch of Class, apparently), looking at this:
TOC might be familiar to many readers. It is a rather large ‘gallery’ (I use that term with a great deal of apprehension here); sky platforms really, which displays popular works of art in photoshopped frames – for sale. They are fairly cheap at around $150L a piece, and the gallery certainly isn’t alone in this type of business: people have been importing (and sometimes selling) ‘rezzed repros’ (my new term) inworld all along.
In fact, rezzed repros were the very first thing I ever saw in SL. My noob-girl’s first teleport was to the Dresden Gallery, a wonderful virtual recreation of the actual Dresden Gallery made in partnership with the Dresden University of Technology. The works on display are Old Masters, and as well from their own collection. Some are available for purchase, which is really a donation to help keep the project going – not a private money-making scheme.
[Note: I had lovely images by PJ to post here of the Dresden Gallery, but have withheld them pending permission due to the following notecard given by the management:
© 2009: The idea, works of art, shop articles and buildings as well as their virtual reproductions are the property of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and may not be copied, duplicated or otherwise used, in whole or in part, in real life or in the virtual world without permission. www.skd-dresden.de ]
I came to SL to explore the arts, and it wasn’t long before I discovered the virtual art I now write about. But along the way, I remember finding another place in the now-vanished Victoriana sim that displayed – and sold – Pre-Raphaelite art. The owner at least provided notecards with each piece giving a basic discussion of the work, so it was arguably educational. But they were also selling the pieces, and some were so badly stretched it made me cringe (art historian’s pet peeve). This was the first time I got to thinking about these issues from an ethical and legal standpoint.
Back to the TOC ‘Gallery’. I probably don’t need to spell out why this place bothers me. The obvious profiteering on images that the owner has no legal right to use is fairly distasteful, but that isn’t enough to make me post about it here. It’s how I GOT to that gallery that is the bigger problem, and why I was compelled to write about it.
The TOC Gallery is currently featured in the Second Life Destination Guide, under arts.
Let’s set aside the laughable descriptor of ‘Classical Paintings’ (the Classical period in art history refers to ancient Greece, Rome, and the Mediterranean, not the ca. 15th-20th century repros for sale at TOC). How on EARTH is this in the Destination Guide?!
For those who are unfamiliar, the Destination Guide are not paid ads, and selections for inclusion are at the sole discretion of Linden Lab, according to the Linden Labs FAQ.
EDIT: ACCORDING TO THE BOX AT THE TOP OF THE FAQ, I’m not even allowed to quote the page! I am seriously dying laughing at this. I can LINK to it, but I can’t… well I can’t even tell you what I can’t do, because that would be ‘copy’ and ‘distribute’ – OOPS, did I do it? Anyway…
The TOC certainly is not in line with the very first favourable criteria for selection: edited, please see the section on selection criteria to find the very first criteria which shall not be named. TOC is a series of sky platforms and boxes textured with rezzed repros (Matisse is spinning in his grave), not very creatively designed, with a jumble of ‘framed’ works all around, and bizarre red and blue prims sticking out with no apparent purpose.
In addition to this, it has no redeeming educational function. You can look at the images, but there is no information provided about them (unlike the Dresden, which provides an audio guide, notecards, and signs in special exhibits, such as one on Canaletto). And there is also no guarantee what IS there is correct: Astarte Syriaca, for example, is labeled The Annunciation, exhibiting a clear lack of art historical (or religious) knowledge by the owner. Finally, there is certainly no collection information provided, so not even an attempt to credit the rights holder of these works.
Now, to be fair, I DID chat with a couple of the people walking around. They were enjoying seeing the work, which I think is the one redeeming value of this place – however, they, like me, wondered how these works could be for sale. Could the owner have possibly secured the rights to reproduce and sell hundreds of famous works?
I think we all can guess that the answer to that question is a definitive no.
Furthermore, by selling works that are currently under copyright (or without having obtained reproduction rights), the TOC Gallery is not only in violation of Linden Lab’s Terms of Service, but is promoting content for which they do not have or own rights – a point on which there is a big fat warning in red on the FAQ:
So, how do I know they have not acquired the right for the hundreds of works of art they are displaying and selling? First – come on. Second – I am very familiar with several of the collections these works belong to, and as well know some of the curators involved, and am confident they would have never approved this. And in the case of works that are in collections which allow photography – such as Astarte Syriaca (Manchester City Gallery) or Regina Cordium (Glasgow Museums) – the quality of photos, in the museum lighting, would be very poor indeed, which is not the case here. Thirdly, we have the confession of the TOC ‘Gallery’ owner himself.
TOC is owned by Dwayanu Weyland, a resident since 2006. While debating whether I should contact him directly and do a little investigative journalism, I was saved the chore by the discovery that someone else had already done so: arts community leader and Linden Endowment for the Arts (LEA) Committee Member Sasun Steinbeck.
Sasun made a blog post about this place back in September. She approached him about his ‘gallery’, and included the conversation she had with this guy, which you should definitely go read. But allow me to quote a couple choice gems here:
Sasun Steinbeck: Maybe you don’t realize that you are selling copyrighted content
Sasun Steinbeck: which is illegal
Dwayanu Weyland: and your ownership of those rights is what??
Dwayanu Weyland: I find the american idea that they own the internet amusing and annoying both. I would point out that the typical sale price in my gallery is about 35 pence real, which is below the legal boundary for copyright violations. I also don’t see anybody trying to extradite the ill-gotten gains.
Sasun Steinbeck: it’s illegal to even display copyrighted images without permission, it doesn’t even matter of you make a dime or not. SL is a commercial application that benefits from the display of art in galleries such as yours, but I’d guess that it does look worse if you do make a profit, which you are, even though it isn’t much
Dwayanu Weyland: i don’t care a lot for your silly laws, tho obviously i’m subject to the Linden’s judgements. Last I checked with them, museum reproductions were fine.
Dwayanu Weyland: i can walk in to the National Museum and photograph a painting, and if i escape security , i’m home free.
Sasun Steinbeck: that doesn’t mean you can sell that photograph or even display it without permission, unless it falls under fair use guidelines. which this most certainly does not
Dwayanu Weyland: you obey everything you are told ! good to have sheep in the world.
Sasun Steinbeck: content theft is wrong, no matter what you may think, it is unethical and illegal
Dwayanu Weyland: I realise you represent the hundreds of poor to middling and very rarely good sl artists, who are frustrated at being incapable of selling their work, because nobody will buy it.
I’m not sure where Dwayanu got his rather dubious legal advice, but ’35 pence real’ adds up. I wouldn’t want to speculate how much he makes from his business… and guess what? I don’t have to! He let us know in a comment on NWN’s post ‘Unconsumed’, on SL spending:
My first two business attempts were failures, yes, I was clueless in a business sense. But I learned and my third attempt grosses around $L 2,500 / day, covering tier and misc plus RL Xmas. All without putting any money in to SL other than 1st year Premium fee.
That was in late 2009. At today’s rate of exchange, this equals roughly $3,000 US dollars per year. Let’s be clear: Dwayanu isn’t exactly turning a massive profit here, but neither is that small change. The problem as I see it is twofold: 1) What he was doing is both unethical and in part (if not in whole) illegal; and 2) Linden Labs shouldn’t be promoting it.
The thing is, what Dwayanu is doing here is exploiting a very grey area of copyright law: the use of reproductions of original material. The first puzzling question is whether a photograph that is a faithful representation of an original work that is OUT of copyright, falls under the same copyright as the original, or whether it is considered a new work of art. It is a conundrum that is at the heart of wikimedia and creative commons debates. Some museums allow their artworks to be photographed (the British Museum and the V&A immediately come to mind), at which point the photo is yours to use (and sell) to your heart’s content. Most of these, however, are little more than poorly lit snapshots. Other museums do not allow photography, and rely on reproduction fees for income (The National Gallery London, the Tate, and the Getty come to mind). And the debate here is, how can they charge for a work that is out of copyright?
What you pay is not for copyright, but rather a licensing fee to use their own reproduction of the image. By disallowing photography in the museum, they ensure that the only proper images come from them. But in the age of scanners and digital photographs, beautiful DYI repros can easily be made and put on the web. And personally, I’m a fan – I use them for educational purposes. Which falls under Fair Use.
Let’s talk about that term for just a second – and I must make a disclaimer, I am no copyright expert. I’m simply someone who has to deal with this professionally on a regular basis. According to this rather good explanation of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA, something many content creators are familiar with, and if you aren’t, you NEED to be):
The Fair Use provision of the Copyright Act basically allows reproduction and other uses of copyrighted works under certain conditions for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research.
The TOC ‘Gallery’ is doing none of the above. They are making REAL money off of them. Furthermore, only a portion of what is being sold could even be argued to be OUT of copyright. Basically, copyright law varies from country to country, but in many places a work is protected from the author’s death plus 70 years. TOC sells numerous works still in copyright; for example, Rothko died in 1970, Picasso in 1973; elementary math tells us that these artists have not been dead 70 years, so those works are still clearly copyrightable. Even worse, living artists are represented. And unless the owner is actually British abstract painter John Hoyland, I’d think selling his work in the TOC was definitely a no no. I suppose it would be easy enough to check: Hoyland, a Royal Academician is represented by Alan Wheatley Art.
So what’s to be done? If the museums were contacted, would they waste their time pursuing this? Can this even be controlled within an environment like Second Life? I admit, it seems like a losing battle, but in the way of finding some kind of solution, I’ll bring this back to the critical issue at hand.
Linden Labs should not be promoting a business like the TOC ‘Gallery’ via the Destination Guide, or any other means.
Furthermore, they should be keeping their eagle eye on such practices to cover their own legal asses. And, they SHOULD, instead, be promoting galleries who display either rezzed repro or virtual repro work for non-commercial, educational purposes (such as Dresden, or the now sadly defunct Primtings), and/or those which display original rezzed or virtual art – of which there are plenty! (And beautiful ones too, not poorly constructed platforms that are basically eyesores.)
Finally, as consumers, we must stop paying our lindens for rezzed repros that are being sold illegally – even if they seem very cheap and we think no one will care. It baffles me why someone would pay $150L for something they could google and upload themselves for $10L. You could even buy a lovely frame to put it it in for not much more, which is a far cry better than the boring ones photoshopped on in most places.
Here is another suggestion. Why not buy some original art made by your fellow community members? There are so many wonderful virtual artists in SL (Dwayanu’s erudite opinion aside), why not become a virtual art collector? There is something for every taste:
As I said, the TOC ‘Gallery’ isn’t alone in these practices, and there are even some wonderful content creators out there who sadly do this in their home decorating shops (I might quietly send you some slaps on the wrist and point you to this article). But TOC gets to be the bad example because Linden Labs has seen it to promote them in the Destination Guide (and, well, because of the poor attitude displayed elsewhere).
I’m a champion of SL to the contemporary art world, and I would prefer to bring the amazing work of virtual artists to its attention than yet another crappy example of why SL has such a poor reputation. I’m asking the Lab to help me help them to look good – and reputable! – in the eyes of the art world. Remove the TOC Gallery from the Destination Guide, and make sure in future that whoever is in charge of deciding such things does a little bit more thoughtful research in to what makes a supportable destination – especially in the arts.
Special thanks to PJ Trenton for the investigative google foo in researching this, and with photography assistance.