Pirates of the Living Room

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Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri Photo: Alberto Korda
Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri Photo: Alberto Korda

Was it the wine or did my friend have an original Henri Cartier-Bresson up on her wall? I walked up to the photograph, looking for a signature. Predictably, there was none. I rolled my eyes and began to tut inwardly. Meanwhile, my friend gushed, “Isn’t it gorgeous? I found it on the Internet! I am doing Man Ray next!”

“What about copyright,” I asked, indignant, “and that whole business with limited edition prints that photographers are crying themselves hoarse about?”

“I’m sure the late Man Ray would not mind, as long as I don’t try to sell it as an ‘original’,” she replied.

Photographers, gallery owners and collectors don’t really have a sure-shot way of stopping people from scanning images from expensive, lavishly produced books of photography or, even more cheaply, from downloading reasonably hi-res images from the Internet and putting them up on their walls. “We have various checks and balances in place now, given that the market for photography is a growing one,” says art dealer Peter Nagy, who represents such photographers as Gauri Gill and Dayanita Singh. “We try to control the number of high resolution prints that go out to the press. We don’t accept unsigned prints — some photographers sign directly on the print, while some sign behind it. Some insist that their works be sold only in sets so that duplicating them is more difficult,” he adds.

Raghu Rai, amongst India’s most ‘collectible’ photographers, recently did an extended edition of 50 prints to make his work more accessible to students and younger collectors. “On one hand,” he says, “I’m happy that photography is popular and that people enjoy my work; on the other, I’m not thrilled that people just scan or download work and put it up in their homes.” He understands, though, that “not everyone can afford to buy art priced at Rs 2 lakh”. “If everything from Armani to Gucci, Bresson to MF Husain can be duplicated,” he shrugs ironically, “who is Raghu Rai?”

More pernicious than unscrupulous fans are the media and publishers, who make money out of flouting copyright. Ram Rahman, the photographer and artist, had an ugly run-in with an Australian magazine that commissioned him for a series of images on contemporary Indian architecture. “They vanished after I submitted the images. Four years later, in 1992, I was shocked to see the images in a book titled India Modern by Herbert Ypma and published by Phaidon Press.” Phaidon is a famous, well-respected publisher and Rahman is, clearly, still upset. “I don’t mind sharing images artistically, but I get upset if someone is making money off my work and not crediting or paying me for it.” Nat Foreman, the public relations officer for the Asia branch of Phaidon Press, is unpertur bed. “We are not aware of the work of Ram Rahman,” he told me, “or of how he is connected to Phaidon Press. Besides, as it happened so long ago, we have no records of any transactions with Ram’s works.”

More recently, young photographer Zishaan Akbar Latif’s work was used by HarperCollins for the cover of Christopher Snedden’s controversial Kashmir: An Unwritten History. Harper- Collins purchased the photograph from Dinodia Photo Library, Mumbai, and credit was given to the designer of the cover and the agency from which the photograph was purchased, but not the photographer. “The copyright of the photograph belongs to me,” says an aggrieved Latif, “the creator of the image.” Unravelling the trail of events, he discovered that in 2010, he had sent two essays to Drik Picture Library in Bangladesh, which distributed the photographs to Majority World, a Drik initiative operating out of Sri Lanka and London, which sent them on to Age Fotostock in New York, from where they wound up in Mumbai.

VK Karthika, chief editor at HarperCollins India, maintains that the publisher acted in good faith. “From our end, there was due diligence; we got permission from the photo agency and legally bought the image. How were we to know that they had procured the image from Zishaan?” HarperCollins has since apologised and have sent out stickers to be put on the books with due credit to Latif.

Clearly, when so many agencies are involved, it is difficult to keep track of an image and its origins. Photographers need to be hyper-vigilant. Shwetasree Majumder, a copyright lawyer and managing partner with Fidus Law Chambers, says that the Indian Copyright Act adequately protects photographers. “The law identifies the photographer as the creator of the work and sole owner of the copyright to it. Even if a collector buys a photographic print from a photographer, the copyright of the work still resides with the photographer unless specifically assigned,” says Majumder. “Furthermore, if a photographer sells an image to a stock agency like Getty or, in this instance, Dinodia, it is incumbent on those acquiring the work thereafter to either ask to see the appropriate copyright releases or moral rights waivers or to seek to know the identity of the photographer so that he can be credited, as his moral right to be identified with the work continue to remain with him in law.”

However, Pablo Bartholomew, a recent Padma Shri awardee, believes the copyright law is archaic, given his experience. His iconic image of a child’s face, the rest buried in sand and rubble, in the aftermath of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy has been used repeatedly without credit. He cites the decision taken just a couple of weeks ago by a US court, which dismissed a lawsuit against the photographer William Eggleston.

Collector Jonathan Sobel sued Eggleston because the latter printed larger, digital versions of some of his best known works and sold them for record prices, thus, in Sobel’s mind, “diluting the value” of the work he had bought 30 years ago from the photographer. “The judge ruled that the artist should be allowed to extend his work in a new format because the intellectual property of the work belongs to him and not the collector. I wish our laws would protect our work as well, instead of turning a blind eye every time someone appropriates a photographer’s images,” says Bartholomew.

The consent of artists and photographers is key. For instance, Dayanita Singh made a limited edition of calendars from her Dream Villa series and gave them out as gifts at her opening at the Nature Morte Gallery. “I made this print with the expectation that the viewer would take the work home and enjoy it. This was a response to the commoditisation of art and culture as well as a means of reaching out to a broader audience,” she says. Naturally, the prints were glossy, on fairly perishable paper and differed greatly from those printed on photographic archival paper, which cost collectors a hefty sum.

Money is a barrier to young collectors, or those seeking to begin a collection. Rishi Raj, a young fashion guru who teaches at the Pearl Academy of Fashion in New Delhi, has just started a collection with his partner Bijay Thapar and the two of them believe in buying from legitimate sources, keeping it affordable by patronising upcoming photographers rather than established names. “I strongly feel that there is a set of ethics behind appreciating and owning artwork,” says Rishi. “If you can’t buy it, make it your desktop. But framing scans and downloads of work by ‘famous names’ turns your home into a cheap hotel lobby.” And turns a work of art into cheap wallpaper.

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