Economic Models for Digital Art

This page has been archived on the Web

Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please contact us to request a format other than those available.

Copyright has a direct relationship to economic interests, and different copyright models serve different economic models. To fully consider the relationship between copyright and digital art, we must consider what economic models are developing for digital art and their relationships to copyright. The sub-economy that is the art market is based on the traditional exchange model of tangible products, hard goods, for sale. There are of course nuances in this market pertaining to the speculative nature of prices and the specific ways that taste-makers influence it, but the basic economic model is both ancient and simple.

One obvious way in which digital art differs from traditional media art is that digital art usually does not take the form of a discrete singular physical object. This affects the important art market concept of exclusivity of ownership and the ability to immediately quantify what is being purchased. As described earlier, digital art bears a fluid relationship to tangibility and processes are often more important than product to defining the work. Similarly, new economic models for digital art - experiments really, as there is no agreed upon workable model yet - often emphasize process over product. For instance, in 1999 this author became the first artist to successfully sell a digital artwork on eBay. The art work was posted for $5 and after bidding, sold for $52.Footnote 33 This experiment or performance was intended to raise the prospect of new economic models for digital art by employing the iconic tools of the then "new economy" and sell digital art more as "shareware" than as art work. Shareware is software that is developed by a programmer and multiple copies are sold for a very low price. The idea is not to make a living off the sales of the software, but to recoup a minimum of production costs while using the shareware to advertise the skills of the creator. The creator then makes their real living through contract jobs that may come as a result of the shareware, or they may be hired outright for their skills and creativity. The relevant concept here is that it is the skills and services of the creator that are important over their tangible products. By emphasizing art as process, the role of the artist is privileged. In the traditional art market based on products, it is often third parties, from galleries to artists' estates, that recover the most value from the artists' work through sale and resale as the work leaves the world of its creator. The attendant copyright for this shareware model would probably need to be an open and flexible model (except for strict attribution rights) as that artist wants the artwork to be easily shared and visible, used and re-used, in order to effectively advertise the artist.

Alain Depocas witnesses similar models whereby the artwork serves not as the primary means of income for digital artists, but rather as a calling card that results in invitations to participate in media art festivals and residencies (where the artist receives their main income). In practice, the related copyright policies (if not laws) Depocas observes are indeed slightly more open than traditional art copyright. For instance the V2 lab in the NetherlandsFootnote 34 requires that any technology digital artists develop during their V2 residency remains on-site for re-use by future residents who may incorporate it into their own work.

At the core of copyright law is the idea that intellectual property protections promote creativity and innovation in society because they ensure a return on original work thus motivating the creator. Long protection periods (life of the creator plus many decades) ensure generous return. But digital art models with their emphasis on process over product suggest that perhaps much shorter protection periods would better promote innovation because that would require continuous innovation; no one would be able to rest on the laurels of an animated rodent for 95 years. Shorter protection periods would also reinforce the idea that the creator is the main beneficiary of their work rather than the third parties that may acquire or inherit the protected work without creating or innovating themselves.

John Sobol, formerly an Educator and Co-Curator of Digifest, said that the current art market amortizes all value into tangible fixed objects, privileging transcription over performance. He adds that it would better serve artists and society to shift value from product to process. Sobol has seen various experiments with digital art economies, but reminds us that most of the art world, even much of the media art community, still define their value by the content they produce or own rather than the processes they enable. Sobol points out that the most successful organizations to profit from digital media and the Internet are those that are neutral with regards to content. These organizations (eBay, Google, Amazon, Cisco) produce no content themselves, but rather serve to enable processes and connect people to each other, to ideas, or to services and products. Sobol said that artist commissions, for instance, place value on process as much as product and commissions form a kind of enabling process. Sobol suggests that commissions that are normally paid for by one agent at great cost could potentially be de-centralized with costs spread among many agents. Artists could solicit many smaller donations online, rewarding donors with smaller artistic productions like creative buttons or postcards. Though each individual donation might be very little, it would add up to the equivalent of a museum commission. This model has been limited in the art world, but has gotten attention in the world of independent musicians and politics where, for example, U.S. presidential candidate Howard Dean raised a substantial amount of campaign money from numerous small Internet donations rather than a few large donations.Footnote 35

Neeru Paharia, Associate Director, of the Creative CommonsFootnote 36 listed similar models from the creative community, relying mainly on the private sector. These economic models for funding creators include the following. First are online "tip jars" for musicians. These are online music sites where the content is free, but users are asked to donate to the artist using the PayPal online payment system. This model might sound like the online equivalent of the subway musician with a hat on the ground, but what is interesting in this context is that funding is directed to the artistic process and detached from a fixed price for a fixed product. Paharia mentions other music sites where sample content is free, but the full version requires purchase, and other sites where content is free for non-commercial use, but paid for commercial use. Jon Ippolito suggested the best economic model for digital artists might be simply retaining a day job. While this model has of course served artists of all types since ancient times, digital artists are among very few groups of artists that may obtain gainful employment doing something directly related to their artistic practice. There are few jobs for easel painters, but many for good programmers. Day jobs of course detract from the amount of time the professional artist may devote to their art and they even detract from the title of "professional artist" since many define the term as those who make their living from their art. On the positive side though, digital artists in particular can gain valuable experience in their chosen medium at work and create artwork at night that is informed or conversant with their industry. An income that does not rely on art sales also implies a certain amount of freedom from market concerns entering the artist's practice. Similarly it allows the artist to be more flexible with regards to the intellectual property rights they impose or release for their art. A digital art exhibition at New Langton Arts, "Day Jobs" explored the somewhat new relationship between artistic survival and work in the digital arts.Footnote 37

An example of an economic model for artists in general that is private but collective is the Artist Legacy Foundation.Footnote 38 Started by artists Squeak Carnwrath and Viola Frey, the Artist Legacy Foundation is a sort of confederated artist's estate. The Foundation accepts and stewards works donated by artists. During the artist's life and beyond, the Foundation promotes the artist's work and simultaneously profits from it through sales and reproduction licensing. Income derived from these works is re-invested in the arts community through grants to living artists. This economic model would appear to require copyright protection that is fairly close to current law.

Jem Budney, Curator at the Kamloops Art Gallery, spoke to public sector economic models and public influence on private models. Budney spoke about CARFAC, a Canadian national copyright collective society that sets standard fees for artist commissions and exhibitions.Footnote 39 Budney sees the value in such an agency, and uses their fee structures to compensate artists to the highest degree possible. Budney suggests that CARFAC affects public funding because arts organizations can clearly demonstrate the need for specific artist fees. Budney notes, however, that CARFAC is not a visual artists union and this also affects public funding. For instance, performing artists have several national unions that help negotiate and set consistent and larger fees with presenters. This means that performing arts presenters can demonstrate clearly defined needs for much larger areas of their budgets than visual arts organizations can. Budney believes that this contributes to smaller amounts of public funding for visual arts. David Clark, artist and Associate Professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, makes a living from his university salary in combination with public artist grants and commissions. Clark mentioned that a friend is experimenting with an interesting economic model for a digital book where the friend will provide content on the Internet for free, but will charge for broadcast rights. This resonates with a suggestion from Diane Zorich that artists begin to separate out the various rights in digital works and treat them individually by way of creating more sophisticated economic and intellectual property models. Clark concluded by suggesting that Canada provides better public funding for artists than the United States, but has a much smaller private collector culture to support artists.

The digital arts community is experimenting with alternative economic models and related copyright practices, but this is not to say that some of the most traditional models have no application for digital art. Sales of artworks to collectors or museums may still play an important role, especially if such models are adapted and updated for digital media as described in the above section on collection and preservation.

Contact information for this web page

This resource was published by the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). For comments or questions regarding this content, please contact CHIN directly. To find other online resources for museum professionals, visit the CHIN homepage or the Museology and conservation topic page on

Page details

Date modified: