Stephan Vogler has created a license inspired by the block chain which seeks to transform how the art world works. Vogler’s vision entails a system of rights to copyrighted works in digital form. CCN interviewed Vogler about his vision for the future of art on the block chain, but, before answering my questions, he wished to impart a story about the influence of technology on art history. He believes this process will transpire once more as the Bitcoin block chain creates a new way of owning and trading art. You can view an example of the license here.
“In the 14th century most visual art was technologically limited to painting,” Stephan Vogler told CCN during an exclusive interview. “Painting was a time consuming and expensive technique. Only the church and the nobility was able to fund and own such art. As a consequence art in general was religious in focus or served as glorification of wealthy and powerful individuals. At that time art was found in cathedrals and palaces.” In the 15th century, printing changed the standard. The German artist Albrecht Dürer first adopted the technology and applied it to art.
Thanks to Dürer woodcut printing emerged as an independent art form. The consequences were profound. Art became affordable and accessible to common people. Prints could be produced in large numbers and distributed in new ways.
“Dürer was the first artist who acted as a publisher and hired traveling salesmen to sell his prints. Soon his artworks could be found in houses all over Europe,” Vogler told CCN. “Because of the new audience art began to focus on more secular subjects.” Dürer also played a part in the development of the modern copyright.
“Dürer was also one of the first artists who signed his artworks with his own monogram,” Vogler tells us. “When he discovered that an Italian artist copied his works without permission he convinced the authorities to forbid other artists to sign with his signature – a first step towards the modern copyright.” Vogler’s point? Technology disrupts art.
Printing changed art in every way – how it is created, how it is distributed, by whom it is owned, what it shows and what makes it valuable. People began to understand that an artwork is not just a physical object.
Exclusive Interview with Stephan Vogler
What is your understanding of the history of digital art on the internet and even before?
I think digital art is the next logical step of art in art history. In 1975 the journalist Tom Wolfe examined the development of modern art in his book The Painted Word. He recognized a de-objectification of art, which began with realism in the 19th century and ended with conceptual art in the 70s – art became pure information. At that time information was still represented as printed text. Today we store information digitally and distribute it over the internet. If art really is pure information it is digital art.
What is the current state of digital art?
There are two sides to the current state of digital art. On the one hand it is widely spread around the world. Art is created on thousands of computers everyday and distributed through the internet all over the globe. On the other hand digital art is close to nonexistent in the art world. How can that be? The answer is that the so-called art world is nothing else than a global market. As in all markets great value reflects high demand and low supply. Since digital art can be easily multiplied it lacks an essential quality to be successful on the art market: scarcity. I think that the Bitcoin blockchain offers a solution to this shortcoming. Even though it cannot prevent anyone from copying data, it can turn the copyright to a digital artwork into a scarce virtual property.
How does this differ from analog fine art?
Due to its material nature analog fine art has always been scarce. However, at the same time, it comes with major drawbacks: in most cases it’s authenticity and scarcity cannot be proven. That’s the reason why trust is dominating the art world as it is today. If you want to buy an expensive piece of art you need to trust your source. May it be an art dealer, a gallery, an auction house or an artist. Trustability is the secret of success of the big players in the art market.
You’d rather buy a Warhol at Christie’s than on Ebay. But if done right, digital art can solve these problems without relying on authorities or institutions. Digital signatures can prove authenticity and blockchain entries can guarantee scarcity. As a consequence the amount of trust needed to acquire original artworks can be reduced to a minimum. Digital art has the potential to change the rules of the art market.
Does your idea only apply to digital art?
The Bitcoin Blockchain can be used to turn any legal claim into an independently tradable virtual property. However if this works out or not depends on the topic and the relevant laws in the various countries.
How does the license you’ve created work?
My license uses the Bitcoin blockchain to turn the usage rights of a copyright-protected digital work into an independently transferable and tradable virtual property. The license text is not longer than one written page and covers all relevant technical and legal aspects. It explains how artworks are put under the license and how the resulting virtual property can be transferred to a new owner. Furthermore it lists all rights and obligations of the licensee. The ownership of a virtual property under my license comes with more usage rights than the ownership of a physical artwork. This includes, for example, the right to copy and distribute the artwork. The owner also has the exclusive right to pass on the right to transfer the virtual property. As a consequence the property is not only technically, but, also, legally limited to one instance.
Are there are other types of art, such as music, to which your idea could be applied?
Absolutely. My license can be applied to all kinds of data, e.g. text, images, music or video. As long as you can save it to a file you can put it under my license. In this way even data that usually cannot be materialized, like music, can be turned into a tradable asset.
Do you imagine some sort of micro-payments system developing based around your blockchain licensing project?
The virtual properties under my license have a remarkable ability: if they are paid with bitcoins they can be securely sold without the need for an escrow service. The transfer of ownership and the payment for it can be handled within a single Bitcoin transaction. In this way either both operations are processed or nothing happens. There is no trust necessary to purchase the virtual property over the Internet. It also eliminates the typical Bitcoin problem of waiting for enough confirmations before the good can be delivered.
Do you believe you could create a new form of digital luxury art?
Trust is the fundament of today’s art world. By obviating the need for trust my approach has the potential to shake these grounds. I’m a firm believer that information technology will disrupt art history once again. It changes how art is created, distributed, collected and traded. It will change the answer to the question of what art actually is and will eventually lead to a new understanding of copyright and intellectual property.
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