If it’s digital ... stored only in the Cloud … if it’s not tangible and made of canvas or paper … does it exist as an art object, and can you as an artist sell it while protecting your creative rights of ownership?

Questions regarding artistic ownership - the right to cash in on exclusivity - to claim your own work for sale and display, all are questions still unanswered in the world of digital art.

Digital artists have for a decade or so tried to find ways to protect work created online in digital form while simultaneously displaying it “for sale” online. Apps and any online access in itself allow anyone to view the program. If you can view it and buy it all online, where and how can you show it? If it’s viewable only online, what prevents someone from stealing it? And if they do, how will you know they took it, or worse yet, do you still own the right to sell it if it’s been replicated?

Digital experts are working on methods of protecting online imagery. One idea is called “Non-Fungible Tokens.” This is a means of protecting ownership while allowing for outside viewing. It’s said NFTs protect the art from theft while allowing art enthusiasts a view of the work. Evidently, the nearest comparison is Bitcoin.

We’ve all heard of Bitcoin, how it can be bought and invested in for growth. But even Bitcoin has its limitations. We cannot cash out a Bitcoin, insert it into a Coke machine and get U.S. coins back. At least credit cards have chips in them that tell banks where to send money.

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The conundrum is real for visual artists whose medium has never been using paint, clay or ink; only virtual technology.

Imagine you’ve taken a legal copy of DaVinci’s “Mona Lisa,” (online only) and written a program that adds dialog and action to that infamous “secret smile.” Making money from sales is tough. You have to show what you’ve accomplished - online only - and then be able to give the buyer his or her purchase. Do you give them your sole program or do you sell a copy of the app? Then is it comparable to an artist’s “print,” or is it like a cheap photocopy? And if the buyer wants to make many copies to resell it to make money on your artwork, how do you prevent that person from cashing in on your idea?

There are deeper problems where art is concerned. Since it’s the artist’s idea that makes a work “his or hers,” if you are using an app, then does the technician who developed the app also have a right to claim a bit of your profit from each sale? It’s the equivalent to using a credit card to buy products. The card provider gets a certain amount of value (read that U.S. dollars) from each sale. Cashing in and exclusivity are not the sole problems of digital work; using another person’s app or program complicates ownership. And does storage in the Cloud mean it also gets a share of profit?

Some artists of the 21st century are using computer programs only and don’t touch paint or clay. Many would have no idea where to start using actual paint and a brush. Digital is what they know, and digital was programmed by someone other than themselves. Traditionalists would question whether a “signature” should then be shared with the programmer and app designer. Without their creativity, the digital artist would not have the tools to be creative. It seems with every updated tool or medium comes new and more complicated problems regarding protecting creative ownership.

If anyone has an item for this column, please send it to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.

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