To Own Art

Does an artist own their work?

Well, what does it mean to own a work? It is when someone creates it, right? That automatically makes it theirs. When someone owns their work, they can do whatever the hell they want to do with it. Post it on social media as their own, sell it to profit, whatever. But if I use other works, and create my own work out of it, is it still mine? Or is it also the work of the people who created those other works? Do they have equal ownership of my work?

And if I am inspired by someone else’s work, and create something of my own, would that mean that the person who I took inspiration from owns a part of my work? Or is it acceptable that it is just mine?

What about ideas? Would they be in the same “category” like works? Can one even own an idea?

An alternate answer would be that nobody really owns their ideas and works. It sounds preposterous, yes. Why? Well, here’s another question.

How can one benefit from one’s work? Well, if we don’t even understand what it means for one to own a work, then how can we possibly understand how we can profit from it?

Well, people sell stuff all the time. They get materials, they put work into it, and create a product. A buyer would be buying both the materials and the work. How would we put a price on work, you ask? Well, the seller and buyer will simply have to agree on one. You can’t really measure work, can you? Nevertheless, this system seems to work just fine.

So it seems preposterous to even say that one should not own one’s work. An artist needs money to collect materials, and their works spend time and effort to create. Why can’t an artist be paid the same way as a carpenter, a market vendor, or a cashier?

There we go. Simple as that. Problem solved.

Except that’s not really true anymore. With advancements in artificial intelligence progressing at breakneck speed, this question arises once again. Who gets to benefit from these generated content? The companies who own the A.I.? The artists who created images that were used in a dataset? The ones who generated it with their own prompt? The A.I. itself???

Artificial intelligence completely subverted our preconceived notions. The idea of work is no longer true. Are artists at risk of being replaced by an A.I. that can do their job better? Should this generated content be paywalled? Is A.I. ethical?

Seems like our old answer of “paying for the work and materials” doesn’t seem to work anymore. At least, nobody has really agreed on what that answer would be.

Let’s then look at another proposition. What if nobody owns this generated content?

Again, sounds absurd. But let me make my argument.

Let’s say a group of developers wanted to create an artificial intelligence that could create images on its own. Let’s assume they have the computing power, the electricity, and whatever other resources they need to do it for absolutely free.

Now, they want to use a huge dataset of images that artists created so that their A.I. can study it. They wonder if it would be fine to use these images.

Of course, the artists say yes. Why not? Sure, these artists don’t really know what the A.I. would be able to do. Maybe it’ll be so bad. Maybe it’ll be better than them. But what do they care? The tools they needed to create their work were free, so it’s not like they have to make something back. And it wouldn’t matter if someone is doing their work better than them. They’re doing art for the sake of doing art. Why the hell would they be bothered by these unrelated things like profit and efficiency?

And so the developers decide to go ahead and use all these images. It takes a bit of time, but they eventually make the A.I. It’s so good that it can already rival human artists. They release the A.I., completely free, excited to share their discovery and work to the world.

The artists are amazed by this A.I. A machine, able to do exactly what they are doing? This stuff sounds like its from fiction! What a time to be alive.

Normal regular people are also amazed. They want to try this and see all sorts of things that they could do. It can make a wolf in the style of a renaissance painting! It can make a grassy landscape with a U.F.O. landing on it! Society celebrates the advancement of technology.

You might wonder if these regular people start to claim these images as their own. Well, why would they? What’s the fun of claiming something as your own without the hardships of actually creating it? The exhiliration of finishing it? There’s really no reason to do it, is there? What are they gonna do, sell it? Hah!

In this theoretical scenario, people care more about creating than creations. And why shouldn’t they?

Why would an artist have to worry about another thing replacing them? Why would an artist have to worry about the money they need to spend for the tools they use to create? Why would they even need to worry about food, water, electricity, shelter, and other basic necessities in their life?

Hell, why should any of us even need to feel this way?

Here’s the shorter version of my argument:

  1. A product is comprised of both materials and work.
  2. A person is needed to collect those materials and put the work to convert materials into a product.
  3. Assumption: we can always put a reasonable price on materials and work.
  4. Therefore, we can always put a reasonable price on products.
  5. The price of materials can be easily determined, since their worth can be based on their supply and demand.
  6. However, the price of work cannot be easily determined. Their worth is subjective and is dependent on many factors like experience, the product being made, and the buyer.
  7. Therefore, the price of work cannot possibly be reasonable at all times.
  8. Therefore, our assumption is false.
  9. We cannot always put a reasonable price on products.

So if we can never be truly sure that the price we put on products will be reasonable, then why rely on this system? Wouldn’t it be far more simpler to just remove the price?