On Copyrights and Identities

Jaakko Rustanius at the Nordic Conference on Copyright and Visual Arts. Photo: Boris Fagerström 2014

In these times, when copyrights are largely discussed from an utilitarian point of view, with pragmatist, legalist and commercialist arguments, as important as their are, it might sometimes become easy to forget, even for artists themselves, one important aspect regarding what copyrights perhaps are fundamentally about.

There is a metaphor, which I think many people in the creative professions can easily associate with. According to this metaphor an artwork is like a child of the artist. The artist is a mother, who gives birth to something, which is made from what she is herself made of. This is, quite literally, a familiar metaphor for many, but I wanted to ask, whether the bond between the artist and her artwork is actually even a stronger than the one between a child and a mother.

Children tend to grow up. They become independent, they create their own identities and at some point cease to be referred to as someone’s offspring. If we are mistaken about someone’s parents, and then are corrected, so that we become aware of that person’s real mother, our conception of that person does not change to any considerable degree. She is who she is, regardless of her genetic background. Her own achievements are not, at least not in a modern society, valued from the point of view of her ancestry.

This is not true with artworks. Artworks are always considered and valued also from the point of view of the fact who made them. There is an interesting paradox associated with this phenomenon. On one hand, artworks are separate entities from their creator. They travel to faraway countries and are perhaps never united with the one who gave birth to them. On the other hand, many crucial aspects of the meaning of the artwork are inseparably understood in the context of the artist and the facts of her persona and of her life’s story. The artist is always present in the artwork.

Another way to say this is that the identity of the artwork is in large part derived from the identity of the artist. And, as a matter of fact, the relation works both ways. The artworks that the artist makes and gives identity to, will all become part of her identity as well. She is, as an artist, what she becomes to be through all the works she made during her lifetime.

Copyrights are about identity. Violating copyright might indeed be a similar act than pretending to be someone you are not. You are stealing someone’s identity. I think all people, artists or not, can associate with the frightfulness of a scenario, where someone walks around as you, says and makes things you strongly disagree with.

This aspect of copyright is not true only for individual artists, but also artworks that are collectively created. Art has always, even in prehistorical times, been inseparable conceptual ingredient for people in understanding who they are.

I want to conclude by saying this: copyrights are politics of identity in action.

Thank you and I wish you a fruitful seminar!

–  The presentation was given by Jaakko Rustanius, Chairman of the Kuvasto board in Nordic Conference on Copyrights and Visual Arts, in Helsinki, on September 25, 2014.