7 May 2015

BUT IS IT ART? BUT IS IT COPYRIGHT?

A small argument has broken out on Wikipedia about whether a photo of a soup bowl can be included. The bowl (left) was part of the St Ives Pottery’s range of standard wares, introduced in the 1940s by Bernard Leach and his son David to provide an income stream for the pottery. Making standard ware was how generations of potters learned their trade in the much-coveted Leach pottery apprenticeships.

Someone said that the photo was a breach of copyright and that it had to be removed from Wikipedia. Like all artists, I’m concerned to protect my intellectual property, but I don’t know much about copyright law, and the law as it applies here is complex.

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (section 62) says that an artist has copyright in a work of "artistic craftsmanship".  Such work can't be copied and a photo of it taken without the artist’s consent is a breach of copyright. An exemption is made for works of artistic craftsmanship displayed in public places. But the pot in this this photo is in the photographer’s private collection, and, odd as it may seem, that means that section 62 doesn’t apply.

There's another exemption for "fair dealing" where copying is done for the purposes of private study, non-commercial research, criticism, review or comment on current events. Whether this covers Wikipedia or not is a question I leave to the copyright lawyers, but Wikipedia errs on the side of caution and removes anything doubtful.

A more interesting question, however, is whether the bowl is a work of artistic craftsmanship. These bowls were made in huge quantities – over the years thousands of identical bowls were produced. It's an example of mass production by hand in which the distinction between "craft" and "manufacture" becomes blurred. In the Wikipedia debate, someone said it was "limited repeat production by hand" rather than mass production, i.e. that work made by hand cannot be mass production, which only machines can do. That's a distinction without a difference. Almost nothing is made by hand without tools and there's no meaningful difference between tools and machines. Delft tile makers, who worked without machines, are estimated to have made eight hundred million tiles in two hundred years. What is that if not mass production?

Craft is a slippery concept and is virtually impossible to define. David Pye, the most trenchant writer on the subject, said that craft is sometimes defined in a way that makes it impossible to tell by looking whether a product is the work of a craftsman or not. The way it was defined was inconsistent and contradictory: items that were not works of craftsmanship said to be
  • Imprecise, or 
  • Precise, or
  • Unskilful, or
  • Made to someone else’s design, or
  • Made by power-driven tools, or
  • Producing a series of perhaps more than six things of the same design, or
  • Not made by the same person from start to finish.

The law protects intellectual property in artistic crafts, but not in crafts as such - so not a thatched roof, for example. In artistic craftsmanship there has to be
  • A conscious intention to produce a work of art
  • A real artistic or aesthetic quality
  • A sufficient degree of craftsmanship and artistry (existing simultaneously)

Considering that Bernard Leach had such an ambivalent attitude to fine art and that he adhered to Yanagi Soetsu's ideology of the Unknown Craftsman, it’s arguable that there was no intention to produce a work of art in the making of a thousand identical soup bowls. This bowl, made by an Unknown Apprentice, is just a bowl and anyone can take a photo of it.
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