What It Takes

What It Takes

Who Owns—And How Are Artists Paid For—Art?

By Callie Oettinger | Published: May 24, 2013

Who Owns the Art?

If ideas arrive on the wings of Muses, God, or whatever divine creator you believe in, does the final art belong to the artist or to that divine creator?

I believe in the Muse. I believe that she arrives, laden with ideas, upon that “thunderous train of air” Elizabeth Gilbert described when she talked about poet Ruth Stone:

It would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.” And then there were these times—this is the piece I never forgot—she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right? So, she’s running to the house and she’s looking for the paper and the poem passes through her, and she grabs a pencil just as it’s going through her, and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand it. She and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first.”

I believe in the artist who latches onto an idea and nurtures it from seed to full-blown orchard.

And I believe that the artist’s final product belongs to her. The Muse may have gifted the seed, but the artist planted, nurtured and harvested it.

This past month, I’ve read comments via emails and blogs, about artwork belonging to everyone. The tune these individuals sing, sounds like this: Because the idea was a gift from God/Muses/insert your divine creator here, the idea doesn’t belong to the artist. Therefore, the artist doesn’t have the right to own or copyright said work. The artist was gifted the idea and thus must gift her art, free of charge, to the world.

Years ago, I read an interview with an award-winning writer. I can’t remember the writer or the award, but I remember him asking why he should give the prize money away, after being asked to which charity he would donate it. His answer was along the lines of “Do professional athletes donate their winnings? No. I did the work. Why should I? ”

Getting Paid for the Art

Last year, Tim O’Reilly was called out, for saying “I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away” during an interview with Wired.

Porter Anderson corresponded with O’Reilly, to explain the comment:

If anyone saw the session I did on Charlie Rose, you will have some context for this remark (which was part of a larger discussion, excerpted for maximum impact, as I should have expected…).  Ken Auletta and Jonathan Safran were hand-wringing to the tune of “who will pay for the kind of things we do if the big publishers go away.”  Jane Friedman and I were responding: “If people want what you do, you’ll find a way to get paid. But no one owes you continuation of the current players and business model.”  And I was pointing out that popular art forms come and go—classical music was once pop (Franz Liszt elicited reactions akin to those to the Beatles), and that the literary forms of today might one day be less important.

I agree with O’Reilly, on almost everything. I’m not sure that artists will always find a way to get paid.

There are some artists, such as  Arthur Pinajian, whom I wrote about a few weeks back (See: “Louis C.K.: Give It A Minute”), who try, don’t find commercial success, and then turn inward, doing it for themselves. Doing it for yourself is fine, but, my fear is that so much creativity along this road goes unknown—there’s so much that we’d all be the better for knowing. I know I’m being selfish, thinking of myself. But … I want to know what’s out there.

And then there’s the attitude of some consumers…

Earlier this week, Stephen King announced that he’s holding back on releasing an e-book for his new project. The following is one of the many responses to his decision:

Looks like I’ll be downloading a user scanned version of it since good ole SK Decided that he wants to leave those of us living in the 21st century out of this equation.

A number of others followed, questioning King’s judgment.

My anger grew as I read the comments. Why does it matter if King’s words come in a book or on a screen? I’d buy a book printed on the back of soup cans or scrawled on a restaurant-supply of napkins if it was from one of my favorite authors. The format doesn’t matter. It’s the work. I want to read the work. And I’d pay for it.

Paying for the Art

A few weeks back, actor and film maker Nick Job initiated a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a short film. I was late in checking out the link he sent me then, but forward it now as an example of one artist, the pre-production support he’s garnered for his project, and how he garnered that support.

I like the idea of Kickstarter campaigns because there’s a direct connect between the creator and the consumer. There isn’t a book publisher or record company taking cuts between the artist and the supporter. It’s a direct transaction. One creates. The other supports the creation by helping to fund it.

But what of those artists who can’t get it together for Kickstarter or other campaigns?

How to bridge the gap between the artists who don’t have it in them to continue to share their work (when no one else gets the importance of what they’re doing), and the consumers who want the work for free?

I don’t have an answer.

I started this article at  10 a.m. and returned to it at 10 p.m. struggling to end it.

What’s the Point?

I know how ideas arrive.

I know how they’re planted, nurtured and harvested.

I know that artists who produce are the farmers of good ideas.

I know that farmers need to eat, too.

I know that artists need to step up to the plate to do outreach for their projects.

I know that supporters are in extraordinary positions to help artists.

I know that supporters are almost always consumers—and that consumers aren’t always supporters.

I don’t know how to bring out the ideas being developed in silence, left to die with their artists.

I don’t know how to handle the consumers who take but don’t give.

I know I have more questions.

Your thoughts?

Posted in What It Takes

26 Responses to “Who Owns—And How Are Artists Paid For—Art?”

  1. Basilis
    May 24, 2013 at 4:50 am

    I know that I have to do it! :-)

    • Callie Oettinger
      May 24, 2013 at 6:26 am

      I do, too. Thanks!

  2. May 24, 2013 at 5:33 am

    Thanks for this post Callie.

    My thoughts…

    I propose there’s a clue in the quote from Elizabeth Gilbert – “run like hell.”

    What would you “run like hell.” for?

    The train to the job you love, your family, lover, friends, your pen, your camera?
    Artists away from the studio, firemen to the fire, a fan to buy tickets to the show?

    It’s my understanding that we (artists etc) ‘build’ studios, desks, factories, homes, because our muse keeps calling and giving and we “run like hell” to do good by what we’ve been ‘chosen’ to do without question, when away from our tools. No matter how many tools Van Gogh took on his walk he still returned to his studio to begin and end each artwork, like breathing.

    You’ll write the song that I wasn’t given to write and vice-versa, and when we’ve done, we’ll find, just like our muse did a way to share them with each other. Money is just a way of speeding up that process or develop some form of relationship with the artist and her muse.

    Money as a convenient relationship builder, is also an art in it’s self.
    Dithering over what is worth what and who should pay what, well, I guess it depends what kind of relationship you want with the artist and as an artist how you go about making it or how long you spend with your muse.

    I was talking with a photographer this morning, whose DSLR also shoots HD video, he doesn’t shoot video with it, he knows how much further investment of time, knowledge, and money it’ll require before he can get to the enjoyable professional standard he’s got with photography. It wont bring him returns financial or otherwise as he sees it.

    His muse for the best part delivers to him in regards to his photography, family and sailing. One day his kids may be visited by their muse and it might be in the language of video, who’s got a high-end video?

    That’s what he’ll “run like hell” for.
    What would you “run like hell.” for?

    Hope this adds something, as I know I’ve more questions than answers.


    • Callie Oettinger
      May 24, 2013 at 6:38 am


      Thank you for your reply.

      I’m bothered that some artists will live their lives, struggling to eat, to have a home, while others will profit from their work years later, often after the artists’ deaths. That, of course, is my issue, not the artists’. They weren’t doing the work for money. They were doing it for love. I understand that.

      What I can’t get my head around, though, is the concept that an artist’s work is not his own. That there’s a feeling that art should be given away for free because the original idea was a gift from the Muse.

      And, while pirating has certainly helped share the work of different artists, the idea that someone will steal an artist’s work, because it wasn’t provided the way that person wanted it, is painful. I’m not asking that artists be paid the millions that professional athletes are paid, but at some point, I’d like to see a divorce between the often paired “starving” and “artist.” Artists will create no matter what their circumstances, but seeing a consumer pay rather than steal, would certainly help keep food on the table, the rent paid…

      • Jeffrey Taylor
        May 24, 2013 at 8:42 am

        Ideas are not copyrightable. Expressions are copyrightable. The idea is a gift of the Muse. The physical expression of the idea is the artist’s work. By law. In Western art, the theme of the Annunciation has been done repeatedly. And each actual painting is the property of the artist. Even if commissioned, the artist’s name remains with it. In Eastern art, the theme of the three vinegar tasters, or even hundred children. The theme is available to anyone who wants to represent it. The finished work is their own.

        • Callie Oettinger
          May 26, 2013 at 12:57 pm

          Thanks for this, Jeffrey. Your annunciation example is a good one – of how many can have the same idea, but the expression of it is so different, entirely their own. So if there’s a question of who owns the actual creative process and the product of that process, it is without a doubt the artist.

      • May 28, 2013 at 3:22 am

        Callie, Jeffrey and all the others who have spoken…

        Thanks for replying. I hear you and agree with your question of why the expectations of ‘free’ when our work comes from our muse should it be paid for. I would love to have answer, but I can’t find one. I can offer more thoughts, I can offer my story, I can offer to keep making more art…

        They still steal paintings from galleries, and pencils from the supply store don’t they? Do you think where there’s value for many there will there always be theft for some?


      • May 29, 2013 at 12:16 pm

        The comparison to professional athletes interests me. Athletes in this economy have the same challenges as artists. The Stephen Kings, Michael Jordans, Jennifer Anistons of the world are equally rare. (For that matter, so are truly wealthy business people.) Most athletes never make the big leagues. Many break their bodies and live in chronic pain – whether they make the big leagues or not.

  3. May 24, 2013 at 5:52 am

    Vincent van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime. One.

    Vivian Maier produced thousands upon thousands of photographic exposures, negatives, and prints that no one saw while she breathed the air of the earth. Not a soul.

    Yet both of these disparate artists are now canon (well, Vivian is still on her way but she will get there).

    Neither of them ate and paid their rent off their work. Vivian was a Nanny. I don’t know what Vincent did. Maybe he bused tables.

    The point is this: if the muse is thundering through you, your one and only duty is to say yes. The making a living part of it is secondary. If you can eat through making your art, great. If not, do something else at the same time that feeds you and your family. It isn’t the world’s obligation to make sure we can earn a living from what we most love.

    • Callie Oettinger
      May 24, 2013 at 6:53 am


      All great points.

      You’re right. It isn’t the world’s obligation to make sure artists can earn a living from what the love.

      I know artists will continue — That it is their “duty to say yes.” And I’m forever grateful that they are of this mindset, pushing forward.

      I struggled with the article today, and it became mired in money talk. What I was trying to get at is the respect and acknowledgement. Yes, the Muse gifted them with an idea, but the Muse gifts billions with ideas. Only a handful listen, and even a smaller group do the work. Those that do the work have the right to copyright that work and should be paid for that work. I can’t get my head around the idea that artists should give their work away, that it doesn’t belong to them anyway – or that its ok to pirate the work someone struggled to create.

      • May 24, 2013 at 10:27 am

        Love the article and the points you’ve brought up.

        Anytime money is brought up in conversation I think most artists start to move around uncomfortably in their seats and skin. It’s probably the sole reason that we don’t ‘do the work.’ Money is tied directly to fear of success or failure.

        I’m afraid of giving my art away for free but when we have artists that do it as financially successful as Amanda F Palmer how are we going to survive on what may become the status quo (or is it already?).

        Perhaps the missing factor or the answer to all our questions about how to remove ‘starving’ from artist is your relationship with your audience.

        Artists survive by connecting and cultivating their audience not copyrights.

      • May 31, 2013 at 11:16 am

        “…I can’t get my head around the idea that artists should give their work away, that it doesn’t belong to them anyway – or that its ok to pirate the work someone struggled to create.”

        Getting our head around these ideas is a matter of reconciling language. Render unto Caesar… As you point out, Callie, the muse visits many, few do the work. The visit may be free, but the artist pays a price for doing the work. So should any final recipient.

    • Rob Kotecki
      May 24, 2013 at 10:44 am


      I agree that the world doesn’t owe us a living, but I feel that technology has eroded the infrastructure for creatives to be compensated for their work. The world will always pay for the Kings and the Hemingways, but there are fewer and more narrow routes for creatives to support themselves as they build audiences and practice their craft. True greatness requires focus over a long period of time, and that requires not treating creative pursuits as a hobby. Would we have the King we do today if he had to give CARRIE and THE SHINING away for free?

      Many, many consumers of creative content today no longer feel compelled to pay for books, music, movies or news. They consume more than ever, and do pay for the latest devices to enjoy them but not for the content. For example, as we complain about the poor state of modern journalism, we should take responsibility for no longer paying for newspapers, that are then forced to cut staffs and most importantly, fire PROFESSIONALS. Meaning, the people who have devoted enough time to master their craft.

      In an unprecedented fashion, the Internet has dismantled the idea of copyright and in doing so, undermined the basic principle of compensating ANY artist for their effort, even the greats.

      And the truth of any creative business is that its economic model needs to be adequate to compensate for a high failure rate. If you’re tired of HANGOVER 3 and FAST FURIOUS 6 at the multiplex, you have to not just support new material, you need to pay enough for movies so studios can take the risks on truly fresh material. So before we throw up our hands and say we’re all survivalists in the wilderness, we need to look at how to monetize artistic effort in the current era.

      Do I have a solution? No, but I have to say, it’s not worth giving up any effort to ensure creatives, not just the tech class, can put food on the table.

  4. Alex
    May 24, 2013 at 8:04 am

    God, this echoes so much of what’s going on in my head right now. I just read a piece being passed around on Facebook that was written by Robert Peake, and it made me take a hard look at my habits as a consumer.

    I drop $70 a month on internet service so that I can chiefly watch Netflix and surf Reddit. I don’t need it. It’s easy entertainment, but it isn’t cheap, and it’s sponging up both time and money I could be devoting to actually buying books and reading them. As a writer, this stuff is frustrating, but when I start looking at myself as a consumer, Jesus…

    Thanks for writing this. It came exactly when I needed it to.

  5. May 24, 2013 at 9:50 am

    As a full time artist for almost 20 years I’ve realized that a key component of getting paid is communicating with the audience (or marketing).

    In other words, if artists wish to earn bread and cheese from their aptitudes and craft, they have to understand that the only way the public willingly hands over their cash is if they understand what the art promises to say and are intrigued by it, and they get that link to the work via the artist.

    Artists are paid to the extent that they help the clients/customers/public ‘connect the dots’.

    Unfortunately, most artists chafe at this prospect (mostly, I suspect, through a misunderstanding of what’s required) and cling desperately to the notion of ‘having the art speak for itself’.

    Sometimes it can happen like that, but if an artist embraces the secondary art of communicating what their story/song/image is about, and acting as a conduit between the artist and the client, everything gets easier. The public CRAVES this!

    Some would disagree with me, but I contend that art is about communication, and communication doesn’t end when the art is finished: there’s also the vital communication with the people who would participate in the art…

  6. York
    May 24, 2013 at 10:22 am

    Do all three.

    Crowd fund. Self fund. Use big publishers. It’s a transitional period right now so it’s still viable to take advantage of the dying machine, but also important to utilize new avenues.

    The mindset has to change too. If big publishers are going away then artists can’t expect to work as if they’re still around. So if the passion is strong enough and you feel the idea really needs to get out there, and it requires that second/third/part-time job, then do it.

  7. May 24, 2013 at 11:09 am

    I think the bottom line is ideas are cheap, but the work is hard. All too often popular culture sees only the idea and not the work. This gets reinforced by the ignorant notion of “genius” artists, someone who simply has an idea and “poof” they are an instant celebrity.

    I suspect that these ideas work their way through our culture because they are reinforced by several different vectors. Much like the field of education, where everyone has been to school and therefore think they know what teaching is like, I think everyone has had at least one idea they thought profitable, and therefore assume that the value is in the idea, not in the work. Its only when you try to convert an idea into a reality that you learn where the real work lies. Alas, all to few of us have done that.

    I love my muse, but my rent gets paid by the sweat of my brow, and the sweat of others.

    I am totally 100% with you on the idea that “starving” and “artist” should never go together. I’m an artist in my day job, and the only reason I became one is because I make far more money that way than I would if I continued in the direction of my education, which was teaching. Anyone who consumes a pirated piece, be it book, software, or what have you, is stealing from the hands of the person who did the work. Just as much as if they walked into an author’s house and stole $20 from their wallet.

  8. Heath
    May 24, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    My response would be that there is no such thing a muse. Its simply a spark of creativity that originates within the mind of the artists. People have simply called it a muse because of superstition. The art belongs to the artists…who else? He or she is as responsible for the art as a mechanic is for a new device. If he or she wants their creation to belong to the public, then its up to them. If they want to keep it private, then it doesn’t belong to the public.

    As far as eliciting the artistry of silent or latent artists, well, I would say that writing this article was a good start Steven! Most people dismiss art as an impassioned, waste-of-time hobby meant to serve ones own lack of fulfillment or unpleasant emotions. They’re half right. But what they don’t see is what art can teach. I think if people saw a more logical purpose to art, they would be more inclined to share their own. Passion is not a popular sentiment in the world we live in today. Logic and practicality is the popular sentiment. Its to those that you must appeal to. In other words, Logos, Steven. I’m sure you can appreciate that term :)

  9. Pamela Seley
    May 25, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    One of my college writing professors told me way back in the ’80’s, “never write for free.” Because I couldn’t get that notion out of my head, I didn’t write pieces for anyone else’s eyes because I couldn’t get a paid job writing. The last five years I have been writing “virtually” for free. What it’s done for me is given me a chance to show my writing to the world, for better or worse. So what if I am not being paid because my writing is not up to being a paid standard, or no one will pay to read what I write, I keep going because I have something to say. I don’t think the muse cares whether or not I am paid for my writing. If I determine that I’m not writing anything anymore for free, then I might as well go sit in a corner and sulk.
    On the other hand, I have article ideas I won’t show the world because the thought occurs to me I should save those until I know I will be paid for them. Once an idea is out there, it will be freely adapted and used. It is all about the work, and that’s why I subscribe to this newsletter.
    I recently revisited the movie, “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” and if you know the book, the movie takes some bold liberties with the story. I don’t know what Pierre Boulle thought about the cinematic changes. Maybe he was just happy to see his work made into a movie.

    • May 25, 2013 at 11:30 pm

      What u say is so true We speak here of the world of the 21st century of hyper-media hyper-text, and near-universal participation and influence
      These are different times, and only Losers hang on to ‘copyright’
      The 21st century artist digs ‘kopyleft’ and finds the freedom there that u so well describe

  10. May 25, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    “The Muse may have gifted the seed, but the artist planted, nurtured and harvested it.”

    To which I would add “and gave it away to whoever wanted it”

    I say whoever creates art lets it go, whoever receives it, owns it

    That is NOT to say the artist isn’t rewarded, but that’s another story

  11. May 26, 2013 at 2:48 am

    I know for me, not knowing how I am going to be paid gets in the way of my creation of art, and sadly sometimes affects the quality as I rush to get it out.

  12. Troy McLaughlin
    May 26, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    Why is ok to steal someone’s art? But to steal from their wallet or not pay them for their wages is wrong. If stealing ones wallet or not paying someone for their wages is wrong certainly stealing their art is wrong. The Internet has made theft easier that’s all. Giving something away is a gift. Taking something that isn’t yours is always theft.

  13. May 28, 2013 at 11:26 am

    I had a pottery studio for 20 years, 8 contracted worker bees and a full time packer, shipping to DisneyWorld,JC Penny’s,most National Parks.. yadda yadda. It was production souvenir stuff but everything was hand made from wheel to each little added on sculptured piece. We made face-mugs too. I myself in those 20 years could sculpt 160 faces w/a happy label on a beer stein, including handle, per day. As a creative I hated it. I did it for the money, to raise my daughters and pay the mortgage. More yadda yadda.

    Anyway.. one year, after being on the top 3 list with our reps, we did horrible at the shows. We had competition! Who knew? After that it became a priority to watch the competition and create NEW PRODUCTS for each gift show.

    I told my contracted workers that I would give a bonus for new ideas if in fact we implemented them. Not hearing the part of “implementation” one contracted worked asked if they got paid for “thinking”. Hummm.. as in loading your dishwasher, doing your laundry, driving in your car and “thinking”, “thinking”? I asked.

    People do want something tangible.

    As for EBooks? I buy them and am even creating one, but still I do love a book in hand, with a cover and pic of the author on the back.

  14. July 23, 2013 at 11:59 pm

    an interesting post, what was no longer is and the path forward, murky at best. In a bigger sense the financial problems artists face are part and parcel of the diminishment of work and taking without really adding much value by institutional players. IMHO the taking is what permeates almost everything, certainly the political classes, and there seems to be less and less over to ensure some big portion of the middle classes can affort to pay for culture, books, music and performances. This mindset is what the average joe or mary is guided by. Add to this the culture commodity syndrome and the artist is left on thin ice. There is a place for artist outreach programs, but this puts the artist in a role as a businessperson, maybe inevitable, like everyone becomming an owner in their own stock company, but I am not convinced this is the real work that needs to be done, and it begs the question how to generate turnover, or have it generated so to live off its margins? Maybe we are witnessing the end of an era, and the creative archetype that we used to know is headed to the museum curator. Not the end of creativity per se, but in some real sense, as we have known it, yes.