Shouldn’t we worry about our work getting stolen?

I was invited to speak in October at Foundation Center. The focus was social media, which I talked about from a socio-cultural perspective rather than delivering the typical (and I might add, sometimes superficial) how-to. It went very well and the audience engaged fully in the Q&A. They had a lot of rich queries, most of which I had answers for, some of which I was okay admitting I didn’t have a response to (things, for example, having to do with predicting the future), and yet other issues that left me uncomfortably and truly stumped. Such as:

“Given the public nature of social media, shouldn’t we worry about our work getting stolen? Litigation is, after all, a costly affair. Isn’t it a bad idea to have our art readily available online?”

Hmmm. On the one hand, it’s a legitimate worry. Work – photography in particular – is lifted on a very frequent basis. Before I get into the deep end of my opinion on the matter, allow me to make some very basic and immediate suggestions for protecting your work:

  • Thumbnails: You can always format your jpegs so they are too small to be sized up and printed.
  • Watermark: Adding a faint logo over the image is a very common practice to defend against public usage.
  • Copyright: A classic way to let visitors know that your work is sacred is to simply add a copyright symbol along with the boilerplate language in the homepage or footer of your website.
  • Creative Commons Licensing: Another popular method is to allow reproduction given some provisions.

All of the above options carry no charge to execute. Additional pathways might include:

  • Sharing only a snippet of your audio track if you’re a recording artist.
  • Similarly, sharing only an excerpt if you’re a writer.
  • Publishing a trailer if you’re a filmmaker or performing artist.
  • Or, going back to visual artists, showing a work in progress or a portrait of you next to your work rather than a slide-ready image, which can accompany an engaging blog post.

The name of the game is social sharing

The question, however, I think points to another concern altogether. Which is that artists may be out of sync with current cultural norms regarding the Internet. We already know (those of us willing to admit it anyway) that a lot of arts organizations can be some 10, maybe even 20 years behind on many best practices when it comes to infrastructure and management, and certainly marketing.

The name of the game after all is social sharing. BUT it is not just an action item, which is an all too common and even disastrous interpretation. It is a value. People aren’t sharing in order to gain favor and acquire cool points. They shouldn’t be anyway. Nor should they not be sharing because they’re intimidated by the technology and everything it entails. Sharing is a way of life, the zeitgeist – if you will – of the Web 2.0 era. It’s no coincidence that today we have open source platforms and co-working spaces, that Wikipedia is free and for the most part, so is Flickr, that virtually every one of our favorite celebrities is available for comment by way of tweet, and that artists like Radiohead are giving away entire albums via download.

First, Why, then How

This is all made possible by people’s sense of generosity, accessibility, and transparency. These values are the underpinnings for our social media-driven culture. Which is why I’m often perplexed and troubled when people – artists all the way up to Executive Directors – hurry at me for the crash course, looking to skip the Why and jumping straight to the How:

“How do I do social media?”
“How do I do Twitter?”
“How do I do Facebook?”

My reaction is an authentic “Huh?” ‘cause to me, I hear something equivalent to “How do I make a lot of money?” or “How do I look hip?” or “How do I get people to like me?” Try entering any new cultural space – which is precisely what social space is – with those kinds of questions and see just how far it gets you.

It’s a misguided search. The Why precedes and ultimately answers the How. When you understand why you want to utilize any messaging platform, which is hopefully to deepen relationships with your audience, social media ceases to become a mystery. You easily recognize it for what it is, another type of communication (albeit an amazing one) to add to your kit, like a phone or a handwritten letter. Sure, I might be able to give instructions for making a call or posting a note. But a person would fail miserably in firing off a transmission having neglected sincerity, pure intention, and clear understanding of social norms, wouldn’t you agree?

The light

The bright light in all of this is, despite all the supposed SEO and social media expertise floating around, you needn’t learn anything too specialized. You simply need to care more. Can you do that? Are you willing to? It may feel awkward for those who don’t practice openness regularly or who have issues with trust, particularly individuals who’ve willed their way through many parts of life. But there is bona fide gold in this outlook and way of being: the benefit of genuine community-building. Instead, now, ask yourself:

“How can I practice more generosity?”
“How can I share valuable information that might help people?”
“How can I better express my thanks when people demonstrate support?”
“How can I listen more intently when someone has a complaint about the way I conduct business?”

THAT is how you do social media. Then afterwards, learning the various sites and apps becomes as simple a matter as learning to dial a phone number or type a memo. First, Why, then How. And these days, the Why is clear. To practice an honest and inspired sense of exchange.

To stay under wraps is to call it a wrap

So, going back to where we started with this post… Worried about getting your work stolen, are you? My advice: Take the basic precautions I gave at the top. After that, worry more that no one will even see your work for it to get stolen to begin with. That’s no disrespect. Invisibility is one of the biggest challenges that a majority of artists face. Too many times, I’ve worked with individuals and organizations that can be so worried about how their work or the story of their work will land with the public that it never lands at all! Window missed. Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect to be progress. Make moves.

Also, consider this more realistic scenario. Work that isn’t known can be more easily plagiarized or co-opted scot-free. I’ve seen it happen – often enough that I can assure you this is your bigger problem. To stay under wraps is to call it a wrap! For this reason, I would gamble that your work is better served when it’s out there on Front Street with your clear stamp on it rather than remaining in a secret file tucked within a fortified dungeon where good ideas whither and die from lack of oxygen and sunlight. In fact, that’s the exact protection that patents and copyrights offer. Simply put, they are a public recording of one’s ideas. In other words, dibs. Not that any of us has to pay for these kinds of legal documents… at this time.

Dream big

Purposeful emphasis on “at this time.” When I hear people unnecessarily stress about their work getting copied, what I’m also hearing is agony that their work might actually be *gasp* likeable. This is a bad thing? I think not. When I worked as event staff at an art center, I remember that one of our major receptions was scammed by a massive amount of attendees with counterfeit tickets. Imagine the reaction of the directors. Yes, they cheered! They realized that they produced an event exciting enough for people to want to sneak into. Naturally, as a nonprofit (or any business, for that matter), this isn’t behavior the organization or its budget could allow to happen repeatedly. It’s a new challenge, one that comes with advancing in your field. So, should new difficulties like these stop you from opening your doors? Of course not! These are not threats. They are merely things to consider. Fresh tasks to manage as you begin to and hopefully continue to flourish. There is no more immediate killer of aspirations than the love of ease. As one of my favorite sayings goes: The better you get, the better you’d better get.

Artists, EDs, and everyone in between, dream big, get your stuff out there, claim your work, own your fears, listen equally to positive and constructive feedback, share your ideas and creations like you’ve got a million of them (because you do), and trust that you have the humility and patience required to meet any upcoming situations with triumph.

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