In what way does image re-appropriation and reproduction challenge notions of ownership?

Katerina O'Sullivan

6246 words

47 minutes

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"[A] photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck" (Sontag, 1977). People have been trying to preserve moments in time through photography from when the first image was captured in 1826 by French scientist Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (National Geographic, 2010). Photography has always been used as a way to establish a sense of permanence. Over the years, the power of the image has not subsided, and in contemporary society we are saturated in picture content, from advertising to social media content. With this journey, the meaning of why we take photographs and how (with the influence of technology) this has drastically altered, taking on a whole new purpose. Horning argues that with this shift, "a nostalgia for image scarcity" has developed. With this image culture that we have now, ideas are constantly recycled, and images repeated. But how does this work in a creative setting? Appropriation in art is described as "the purposeful copying, borrowing, and altering of previous imagery, objects, and concepts as an aesthetic method" (Artincontext, 2022).There are all sorts of art movements where the appropriation of images is at the core of the work, but how does this correspond with the ethics of ownership of this imagery? Picasso once famously said "'bad artists copy; good artists steal" and Le Corbusier followed with 'All artists steal; but the truly original artist repays a thousandfold" (Lydiate, 2009).

So, what does it mean to appropriate imagery into other creative works of art? I have been interested in collage as a practise for a long time, I started with imagery from magazines, making my own compositions from precisely cut figures and fragments of texture and colour. However, soon after, with the rise of the internet, I started finding a lot of media online that I wanted to use, for example, stills from films and iconic photographs of my favourite celebrities. It was when I wanted to commercialise my work by printing my collages of found imagery onto fabric to sell as garments that I started to question if I really should or was legally able to work in this way. I started to think of image copyright and being sued for not buying all the image rights for what I had used. But I was confused that in my creative practice, ethics and copyright was rarely mentioned and I had always been encouraged to take inspiration from other's work. It seemed to me that collage as a medium detached the images from their origins in a way. What does it mean to take from others work and is there a way to do this ethically? Can an image ever really be only yours anymore, in a society where media is constantly shared, circulated and downloaded? I aim to explore image culture and the meaning of ownership in the art world, first introducing movements of appropriation art and its controversy and seeing how ideas of copyright and fair use were imposed and challenged by artists. I would then like to attempt to dissect image hierarchy and ownership in the digital age of the internet, looking at the politics of the image using Hito Steryl and Walter Benjamin's theories. Furthermore, I would like to explore the advancement of technology in relation to image creation and ownership, influenced by new technologies such as the camera phone and the realm of social media, finally bringing the investigation into the modern day with the rise of NFTs and what this means for the future of image culture.

Repetition Culture: Appropriation Art and Copyright

Even before the rise of technology, image "repetition" culture was still prevalent in creative spaces (Fox, 2014). The pictures generation were a group of artists working between the 1970s-80s who "used appropriation and collage to highlight the artificial character of pictures and were inspired by Pop art" (artincontext, 2022). With the arrival of the television into mainstream homes, these artists were growing up in a time that was "immersed in this new visual culture" (Widewalls, 2017). This feeling of being overwhelmed with media, could perhaps mirror our own situation in contemporary society. To comment on this, the artists wanted to "return to recognizable imagery, exploring how images shape our perceptions of ourselves and the world" (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012). This blatant usage of recognisable imagery as art could be seen as controversial, as well as the next context that artists were placing the images into, which were often political.

Sherrie Levene and Elaine Sturtevant were both artists of the pictures generation, who challenged "notions of originality, authenticity, and identity" in their work (Zwirner, 2022). Levine was known for re-photographing existing photographs, "a process where she adopted dual roles as director and spectator" in her creative practise (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2022). These roles allowed Levine to place these photographs into a new meaning, where she introduced themes of desire, loss and identity into the work. Elaine Sturtevant worked in a similar way, "borrowing others work artfully" through photographing existing works of art (Fox,2014). However, she made sure that her reproductions were not perfect, each becoming a "deliberately inexact likeness" (Fox,2014). From afar, you would see a perfect Warhol screen print or Johns flag, but a closer exploration would reveal little subtleties that give the works a new identity of their own. This process of taking these famous artworks on a journey and transforming them into something different, leaves the viewer questioning the boundaries of appropriation in art. The artist herself has mentioned her aim of provoking questioning and confusion, like a feeling of "vertigo" (Fox,2014). It's this questioning around ownership and identity that makes the work so interesting, but the confusion created also meant that not everyone ended up accepting of this appropriation movement, especially when their own work was the subject matter.

Sturtevant, 2014 Fig 1 (Sturtevant, 2014)

One of many cases of conflict around image appropriation was Richard Prince's cowboys series. Richard Prince was an artist from the pictures generation, who whilst working at time life magazine, came across the advertising campaign for Marlborough cigarettes- a western themed series of photographs original taken by Norm Clasen. The original series of photographs were so iconic, they propelled Marlborough to "#1 tobacco brand in the world in 1972, a position it's retained ever since" (Cohen, 2018). The use of these images in an advertising context were clearly extremely popular, but Prince saw potential to use them in a different context, one that could comment on advertisement and mass media. Inspired by this powerful imagery of a male "American archetype" Prince decided to photograph the works, enlarging and editing out the text and any link to advertising, and presenting them as his own Cowboys series(M+B Photo, 2016). Prince stated, "The pictures I went after, "stole," were too good to be true. They were about wishful thinking, public pictures that happen to appear in the advertising sections of mass-market magazines, pictures not associated with an author…It was their look I was interested in. I wanted to re-present the closest thing to the real thing" (The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation, 2022). The presentation and form of the works feeds back to the comments Prince wanted to make about reusing recognisable imagery. For example, the pieces are all photos of magazine pages, and details hint at this- the faded textured paper, the inclusion of ripped corners, edges or distressed middle page fold marks. This gives the work a sense of materiality and meant that their identity as advertisements is kept but not in such an obvious way. Prince didn't enlarge the image and crop them, so they looked like perfect prints, the inclusion of these physical characteristics gave the images a history and were a symbol of the act of appropriation itself. "Prince photographed to provoke", which is definitely the reaction he received, with original photographer Clasen feeling helpless with his actions, claiming that he had no right to appropriate the images not being the true author who put in the time and work to produce those photos in the first place (Cohen, 2018).

Prince, 2018 Fig 2 (Prince, 2018)

Another case where appropriation art was challenged was Rogers vs Koons. Jeff Koons is another artist who worked with appropriation art towards the end of the 20th century. Similar to the other artists of the pictures generation, Koons wanted to make artwork concerned with mass-media and to comment on capitalism and consumer culture in American society. This is why Koons saw potential in Art Rodger's photograph "Puppies" which he found on a common notecard; "[Rogers] specializes in Americana, in the kind of image popularized by Life and Look magazines" (Design Observer, 2022). With this image, Koons made 3 sculptures where he instructed the craftspeople to "[copy] as much detail as possible" (CourtListener, 2022).There were some minor details changed, for example, the puppies were exaggerated and blue in colour, and there were flowers added also. These alterations were not enough for Koons to claim his own copyright- the sculpture was too similar to the material it was based on. Instead Koons argued that the piece of art complied with fair use; it was meant to be a parody of the image, used to critique American consumerism and the damage that mass production of commodities had inflicted on society (Artist's rights, 2022). However, the court ruled against this, stating that "copies made for commercial, or profit purposes are 'presumptively unfair'" as Koons had already sold 3 sculptures for $367,000 (Artquest, 2022). This contradiction in Koon's defence cost him the lawsuit.

Koons, 2016 Fig 3 (Koons, 2016)

In both of these famous cases the defence that was used claimed that that the works were appropriated under fair use. This is the claim that copyrighted material can be appropriated for limited reasons such as "criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research" (, 2022). This provides a certain flexibility of usage of copyrighted works, in the right circumstances. Both artists above claimed fair use in their trials, claiming that the appropriated images were being used as a vehicle to provoke and criticise areas of media or consumer society. However, they were both ruled against due to the artists monetising the works (often selling the work for tens or hundreds of thousand dollars). This, as mentioned above, completely subverts the ideas of fair use. When working with fair use cases, judges have a specific list of criteria to follow when making their decision which is as follows: "The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for non-profit educational purposes.

the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work." (Artist rights, 2014). The factors seem to approach themes of likeness (how similar are the works? Is this obvious, or perhaps just influenced?), commerciality and generally if the artist is seeking to profit from the use of someone else's work.

Artists could also appropriate under the concept of transformative use, a process in which an image is re-used in work, but its characteristics or context changed or 'transformed', so that it becomes something distinguishably different to the original. The boundaries of transformative use were tested by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, a print and collage pop artist known for image appropriation in his works. In the case of Rauschenberg vs Beebe, Rauschenberg's argument was one of transformative use. He claimed that the use of one of Morton Beebe's images in his collage 'Pulp' was altered through the process of print that he used and therefor changed into something new. He "consistently transformed these images sympathetically with the use of solvent transfer, collage and reversal as ingredients in the compositions which are dependent on reportage of current events and elements in our current environment hopefully to give the work the possibility of being reconsidered and viewed in a totally new concept." (Meiselman, 2017). He ended up losing the case, as his argument of transformative use was not a "criteria for "fair use" at the time" (Meiselman, 2017). In 1978, fair use was "narrow doctrine" not something confidently used as defence in copyright cases (Meiselman, 2017).

Rauschenberg, 2012

Fig 4 (Rauschenberg, 2012)

At the time of the copyright cases of the Pop art movement and pictures generation, the favour would be towards the owner of the original work, not the appropriator. But how has this changed over time and what has changed it? Controversially, the pictures generation artist Richard Prince (already mentioned above) has recently won a copyright case against Patrick Cariou, when using his series of photographs from his book Yes Rasta (2000) In his own works. Originally, the case was ruled in Cariou's favour and prince instructed to destroy a number of the artworks he created. However, it was later overturned on the basis of fair use; 25/30 of Prince's artwork were seen to be acceptable, the other 5 were not visibly changed enough to pass(Bates, 2011). Cariou's lawyers tried to argue that because Prince's work "[did not] really have a message" that it could not fall under fair use as the work is supposed to critique the subject matter that it is appropriating (Boucher, 2013). However, the court decided that "artwork does not need to comment on previous work to qualify as fair use, and that Prince's testimony is not the dispositive question in determining whether a work is transformative. Rather the issue is how the work may reasonably be perceived" (Boucher, 2013). This clearly shows a shift in how these copyright cases are being judged, as the emphasis seems to move away from the artist's intentions and reasoning, instead focusing on how the work may be viewed by the public and what the spectator might draw form the content. This public focus is interesting as it hands over power to the onlooker.

After this high-profile change in copyright regulation, we can perhaps begin to wonder the effects that copyright have had on creative and contemporary culture. In his book "Free Culture", Lawrence Lessig argues that copyright is still restricting us more than ever before: "the ordinary ways in which individuals create and share culture fall within the reach of the regulation of the law, which has expanded to draw within its control a vast amount of culture and creativity that it never reached before" (Lessig, 2004). He puts forward that in the early days of the internet, there was a "no-rights reserved" culture, where it was hard to hold appropriation accountable online- images and other media were easily shared and distributed without regulation. But now, there seems to be more questions of what is usable. "The consequence is that we are…more and more a permission culture" (Lessig, 2004).

The Politics of Ownership

What are the implications of copying and sharing imagery online? In HitoSteyerl's essay 'The Poor Image' she questions the political value of imagery shared through the internet. Images that warp and change with every share, download and upload in a cycle that leaves you questioning their connection to the original. Steyerl describes the poor image as "visually compressed and remixed", a "dilapidated", pixelated product of familiar digital technology. Using Marxist theory, Steyerl sets out to explore the poor image in a wider context, it's "value in a society that devalues [it]" (Steyerl, 2009). She introduces her argument with recognisable Marxist terminology, describing the poor image as the "lumpen proletariat" and "ranked... according to it's resolution", alluding to social class and the use of the term "poor" as a double meaning for visually poor and economically or socially poor (Steyerl, 2009). This is how she establishes the standing of the poor image as something at the bottom of the barrel of image content.

Ruff, 2009 Fig 5 (Ruff, 2009)

However, Steyerl suggests the "movement" of the poor image (the very thing that makes it so poor- it's digital travel from person to person) is in itself valuable as it means that it can be shared amongst the masses. Suddenly, everyone can access almost anything online. Steyerl states "the poor image transforms quality into accessibility", meaning that maybe the currency of the poor imagery is more than just resolution, it's power lies in its openness and convenience (Steyerl, 2009). This means that content once reserved and protected by the elite, only to be circulated within a select few is now "liberated from the vaults of cinemas and archives and thrust into digital uncertainty" (Steyerl, 2009). The poor image is something for everyone, it is unpretentious and universal in reach.

Furthermore, this constant digital copying leading to degraded imagery could challenge certain systems of value put in place regarding imagery. Steyerl argues that the poor image goes against our established aesthetic hierarchy, by undermining the "conservative fetishization of tradition, beauty and authenticity"(Schonig, 2022). This itself establishes the poor image as something fresh and modern with the potential of holding a new kind of beauty and wealth.

Steyerl goes on to reference similar strains of ideas explored in Walter Benjamin's 'The work of art in the age of technological reproducibility'. She describes the theme of transformation around the poor image in the quotes "exhibition value into cult value", "contemplation into distraction" which closely link to Benjamin's theories of technological reproducibility (Schonig, 2022). Benjamin was connected to the Frankfurt school, an institution of philosophy exploring social theory linked to Marxism and had a focus on the inspection and commentary of contemporary culture and cultural objects. In his essay, Benjamin explores the subject of copy, through the term 'technological reproductability', which refers specifically to the act of reproducing imagery through photography. He specifically targets artwork, and the effect of creating photographic copies of the original, going on to say, "for the first time in world history, technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic vaults of ritual"(Benjamin, 1935). This clearly comments on the new potential and boundaries that technology such as photography introduced, mainly in terms of reproduction. Benjamin also offers that photography itself has democratised the image, stating "as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionised"(Benjamin, 1935). This communicates a potential shift in value, highlighting that the focus of the image or artwork could be moving away from notions of authenticity.

One of Walter Benjamin's most famous arguments is that authenticity is always at the heart of an artwork, and by copying imagery again and again, something vital is lost. This lost thing is the 'Aura', a term coined by Benjamin to describe "a quality integral to an artwork that cannot be communicated through mechanical reproduction techniques"(Tate, 2017). This quality is it's "Its presence in time and space, its unique existence" and perhaps even it's history or story- the knowledge that this piece is the original, created by someone who spent hours thinking of it and creating it, distinguishing it as something magic and therefore copies of it, empty or lacking(Tate, 2017). This feeling of distance between copy and original is described by writer Andrew Robinson, who instructs us to "think of the way a work of classic literature can be bought cheaply in paperback, or a painting bought as a poster. Think also of newer forms of art, such as TV shows and adverts. Then compare these to the experience of staring at an original work of art in a gallery, or visiting a unique historic building. This is the difference Benjamin is trying to capture"(Robinson, 2013). This concept of aura can be seen as an interesting investigation of our emotional connection to images and artwork, suggesting that even through examples such as the 'poor image' mean accessible imagery for everyone, the true richness of an image is held in the original, and our emotional response to the way we experience the content alludes to that fact.

Clearly, in both written works Steyerl and Benjamin are approaching imagery tied to anti-capitalist commentary. Steyerl states "the circulation of poor images feeds both capitalist media assembly lines and alternate audio-visual economies" (Steyerl,2009). This idea could imply that one purpose of her writing is to clearly establish a sense of realism concerning poor images. There are many positive attributions to the poor image, however it should be noted that our reliance on this sort of imagery is a product of our capitalist society and that "digital networks are not utopias of free exchange" (Steyerl,2009). Benjamin also puts this sentiment forward in his work, using the symbolism of the assembly line, which "copies and reproduces objects for mass consumption", mirroring the modern notions of reproduction and consumption concerning imagery (Schonig, 2022).

The Digital Image

The works of Steyerl and Benjamin are interesting as they approach the same topic of image reproduction from two vastly different time periods, specifically, pre and post internet. The arrival of the internet meant a whole new space was created for people to connect and share in seconds. But how has this affected the way that we consume and distribute imagery? Without accountability can authorship be preserved online, with imagery being constantly passed from person to person, liked, downloaded and screenshotted?

In terms of sharing your artwork online, Vaughan doesn't think so. He argues that artists must 'toughen up' and accept that once they put their work online, they lose it forever: "Once you click "post," you lose ownership" (Vaughan, 2015). He mentions his own published works, that have all been uploaded as complete pdfs for people to consume for free, and there is 'nothing [he] can do' about it (Vaughan, 2015). He states that it's "naïve" for artists to think that people will respect their boundaries as the authors/creators and should expect "viral replication" of their work online (Vaughan, 2015). Instead of questioning if there is any way to combat this loss of ownership and detachment that artists face after putting their work on the internet, he seems to accept defeat, suggesting instead that creatives forget about authorship and ownership all together. He states that "If we get past the idea of full ownership and instead accept that we are all contributors to the vast sea of information, we stop thinking of our own works as deserving of dispensation" (Vaughan, 2015). This shows that he views the internet as a pandemonium of imagery and content, a digital landscape where users can't keep track of the content they create and the act of uploading is ultimately an instant loss of control.

It's almost as if when you upload something you send it off into a whole new digital world and you yourself have to search for it again. Vaughan's ideas of detaching the artist from artwork can be linked to Ronald Barthes' essay "The death of the author" where he explores if artwork should or even can be traced back to one creator at all. He argues that in literature the writing itself is a "special voice" and it's difficult to assign "specific origin" of written ideas and concepts, meaning that "all identity is lost"(Barthes, 1967). Also, he attributes the attachment to authorship as "the result of capitalist ideology, which has accorded the greatest importance to the sense of the author's "person" (Barthes, 1967). The lack of ownership and authorship existing online lead us to question if it is in fact challenging a capitalist ideal "centred on the author, his person, his history" and if by losing control results in a more leftist approach of accessibility for everyone. However, this is just an argument of how things could be different, the reality is that artists, photographers and creators want to retain ownership of their work online.

When the World Wide Web was first launched, there wasn't an instant need to upload art or photography to make it public, this was very much a culture that developed over time. Richard Chalfen investigated an interesting shift in the purpose of image making pre and post internet. He observed a concept that he named "Kodak Culture", which was used to describe photography culture and practise before the introduction of the internet and all the changes that came with it. Chalfen observed that people would mainly photograph traditional events such as birthdays, celebrations or holidays and be able to provide a story alongside the image. These were both to be shared with family or friends or anyone known to the photographer, the photo was merely a visual prompt or talking point. Therefore, the image was only meant to communicate some of what it was depicting, the other value was drawn from the almost performative physical showing and discussing of the photo. With the arrival of digital photography, specifically taken on the camera phone, came a new style and reason for capturing and later sharing images. Miller and Edwards found that "different sort of photographic communication [evolved]—one that involves telling stories with images" (Miller, A. and Edwards, K. 2007). This practise was more focused on "unexpected, opportunistic, spur-of-the-moment image-making" in which 'camera phones were always at hand" (Van House, 2006). This clearly shows that photography became unrestrained and people approached image making as a fun and creative practise, instead of one confined to certain moments. There was an "increase in self-expression" and also "in photographic seeing, seeing the world in terms of possible images" (Van House, 2006). Photography was evolving into something more creative, and instead of having a story to accompany or support it, the photos were starting to tell their own stories, through their visual elements. They were still about capturing a special moment, just like with "Kodak Culture", but it meant that people were looking outside of the traditional ideas of what should be photographed, instead identifying special moments in the everyday. Interestingly, Van House claims that she "noticed a considerable amount of personal chronicling, a form of memory construction: people took mundane images of their daily lives, both for themselves and for others" (Van House, 2006). This concept of "memory construction" is not a new one, it echoes Sontag's description of the photograph as "a fragment…in the passage of time". However, it's interesting to compare the effect of new technologies on image making and how conventions changed. Nightingale argues that camera phone "users are considered to have been liberated by new media because they have control simultaneously of the means to produce, distribute and receive media products" (Nightingale, 2022). This shows technology as a new power and driving force pushing photography into something proactive and immersive, the availability and potential of the camera phone means that the action between creating and sharing photography is almost seamless, which results in a new saturation of imagery being created.

The camera phone started to be used alongside the web as the world became more reliant on digital imagery. This new photographic culture of convenience spread to internet spaces with the uploading and downloading of imagery. The first instances of images being uploaded online were to websites offering photo development. It's interesting that this culture started out as a service designed by companies for commerce, as a reaction to digital camera sales skyrocketing. Gradually the focus became more social as images had the opportunity to become public and individual profile spaces were created. Ofoto was one of these first websites, "around the turn of the century… these early online photo sharing businesses were really morphing out of traditional D&P (developing and printing) services" (Twirpz, 2015). Soon after uploading their images to be processed, people began to look for other people's captures, which soon developed into a need for social media.

Kodak Gallery, 2009

Fig 6 (Kodak Gallery, 2009)

Alongside personal photo sharing, there was a demand for a change in the way that people wanted to consume media. In 2001, Google launched Google images, as a result of a media frenzy of people wanting to see Jennifer Lopez in her famous green dress from the 2000s Grammy Awards. The co-founders of Google Larry Page and Sergey Brin said that they started to consider an image database for google after "Jennifer Lopez wore a green dress that… caught the world's attention. At the time, it was the most popular search query [that they] had ever seen "(BBC News, 2019). This traffic meant that Google images was born, known as probably one of the most influential ways to search for and categorise imagery online. This catapulted images into the digital space, transforming the way that images could be found and consumed. However, how has this affected ownership? Now images are appropriated freely on the internet, available to everyone, were new rules put in place regarding ownership?

Losing Control?

Larry Lessig, author of 'Free Culture', argues that a "cut and paste culture [was] enabled by technology"(Lessig, 2004). He describes an "extraordinary freedom that the cut and paste architecture of the internet created- in a second you can find just about any image you want; in another second, you can have it planted in your presentation"(Lessig, 2004). This shows content becoming readily available and creating possibilities for creative expression. The practise of "musicians [being] able to string together mixes of sound never before imagined; filmmakers [building] movies out of clips on computers" described by Lessig is one of potential and opportunity. However, he also brings to light that the usage of other people's content to create something new is "technically illegal" due to copyright (Lessig, 2004). The only way past copyright is to pay "impossibly high" costs to deem the work legal- which instantly cuts out a large proportion of creators for whom paying so much is not an option. He argues that using content in a fair or accepted way is "a privilege reserved for the famous…the costs of negotiating the legal rights for the creative reuse of content are astronomically high"(Lessig, 2004). The unfortunate implications of this are that work remains unmade, which Lessig deems a shame. He offers an alternative ideal of a "free culture" which involves "[altering] the mix of rights so that people are free to build upon our culture"(Lessig, 2004). He suggests "The system could simply make it easy for follow on creators to compensate artists without requiring an army of lawyers to come along"(Lessig, 2004). This idea seems as though it would solve problems by promoting creativity and creating a system of fair appropriation where the artist is still thanked and value and becoming more accessible to more than a select few. However, the harsh reality of capitalism means that artists and photographers will do anything to preserve their rights. It is hard enough to gain recognition and especially earn a living from creative work, meaning that there might be a reluctance to open up all content for everyone. Even if it does sound ideal, it's something that could change the creative landscape as we know it.

However, some may argue that the act of uploading content onto the internet in itself is facilitating this 'free culture' to an extent. By making images and other information accessible, it means that it will definitely end up being consumed for free (being on the web) and could also be downloaded and kept by millions of people. The web can be seen as this vast environment which holds so much that it's impossible to keep track of where things go. Zittran argues that the internet is a "generative network …[which] enables creative production…accessibility, and transferability" but notably "absent is …security" meaning that "Many of the characteristics that make a system generative are precisely the same ones that leave it vulnerable to exploitation (Davidson, 2012)." This constant sharing and perhaps not thinking twice about the consequences meant that there was a certain fear around loss of control of online content. Being a part of the generation who was growing up with the rise of social media, the caution was always repeated that when sharing something onto the internet, especially photos, it won't belong to you anymore and you can never get it back or fully erase it. Nield argues that we all possess natural copyright to the images we post online, but the act of uploading onto social media means that you hand over certain freedoms to the platforms by adding content to their server. "Do you still own the copyright on the vacation photos you post to Facebook? Yes, you do. But by transferring them to Facebook's servers, or indeed any other social network or platform, you give away a license to reuse those pictures for various purposes" (Nield, 2017). These could be relatively harmless powers, that enable users to like or retweet your images, the core principles or social media, but the fact that your content is now being stored by these platforms in a new environment other than your phone or home computer means that security and ownership can really be questioned.

This loss of control can also be seen with images that are specially created for the internet, that contribute to internet culture, especially in the form of internet memes. Davidson describes the meme as "a piece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence through online transmission (Davidson, 2012)." Memes are typically DIY content based around humour, using images from pop culture with text overlayed and "the speed of their transmission and the fidelity of their form" makes them unique (Davidson, 2012). Pepe the frog, an illustration of a frog character created by Matt Furie is one example of a viral meme, which first appeared online in 2005 in the form of a web comic (ADL, 2016). However, after spreading through online communities such as Myspace and 4Chan, it was appropriated by the far right and branded a "hate symbol" (Roy, 2016). After shocking and offensive pepe content started to appear, it was clear that "racists and haters" had "taken [what was] a popular internet meme and twisted it" (BBC news, 2016). Furie stated that the experience was a "nightmare", and eventually killed off the character in a social media post after trying to reclaim his creation by spreading positive pepe content, under a #SavePepe campaign (Roy, 2016). However, the damage could not be undone, with the far-right communities seeming to triumph over the creator when anti-bigotry organisation the ADL added Pepe to their online database of hate symbols.

Furie, 2017 Fig 7 (Furie, 2017)

Perhaps a reaction to this instability, and a desire to truly own digital images came the rise of NFTs. NFT stands for "non fungible (replaceable) token" and provides a new solution for those wanting to own originals. Just as a collector would purchase original artworks or photographic prints straight from the artists, NFTs are designed to be an original digital artwork or image in digital "token" form. Purchased with Bitcoin, NFTs were branded "the future of collecting" and are "designed to give you something that can't be copied: ownership of the work". However, owning an original has famously come with a large price tag. NFTs by famous creators have sold for millions of dollars- the most expensive NFT was sold for $91.8 million in December 2021 (Bybit Learn, 2022). But why are NFTs so valuable? Apparently due to them being unique, scarce and subject to an internet frenzy. People actively searching out luxury and status online could find it in the NFT marketplace, and soon it was a viral trend spreading through the internet.

Sky Mavis Game Studio, 2022 Fig 8 (Sky Mavis Game Studio, 2022)

The NFT could be viewed as the direct antithesis of the 'poor image' that Hito Steryl described above. It is the very manifestation of exclusivity and luxury, owned as a status symbol and a "a playground for the mega-rich" (Clark, 2021). If their whole attraction is their originality, how does Benjamin's idea of the aura apply? It seems easier to imagine an image possessing aura in a physical environment where you can share it's space, but does the nature of the content being an original mean it still possesses this magic that Benjamin describes, a whole "landscape" and "history" (Keeper, 2021)? It could be argued that it's digital environment means the downfall of the aura. The NFT's contradiction is that even though it's made to be an original token "you can screenshot or just copy the files attached to an NFT and then you "own" it just as much as the person whose wallet it supposedly sits in" (Keeper, 2021). But is this deterioration of the aura such a bad thing? To Benjamin, the reproduction of artwork through technology meant challenging "fascist" tradition: "Art freed from the authority of the single object can meet the audience "halfway", in new contexts, with new juxtapositions" (Keeper, 2021). Perhaps this means that a new type of aura is created, one which sparks from every screenshot and share, discussion and distance that the image travels, giving it a new spirit and keeping it alive. Clearly, the NFT exists in both worlds of luxury and accessibility, and as a concept that has decreased in value and popularity dramatically since 2021, it's clear that we are searching for the next solution to the problem of image ownership.


Will images always be objects of desire that need to be consumed again and again? Has the arrival of the digital age and technology changed the way that we interact with visual material forever? In this essay I have attempted to explore the transferability of images, first in the artworld, where they are guarded and kept by copyright, rarely recycled without controversy. I explored alternatives to this guarded culture through alternate Marxist ideas expressed by Stereyl, Benjamin and Lessig. In the digital age, I explored the idea of imagery becoming too circulated and the effects of this on ownership. Does it still exist? I continued questioning acts of appropriation within internet culture and what they mean for specific artists and creators. Looking ahead, I attempted to examine NFT culture and how people still search for ways to prove ownership.

It is difficult to examine the politics of ownership and take a side. Partly, I believe that images should be able to be traced back to where they came from, but also be used and consumed by as many people as possible, to generate new ideas and visual outcomes. Sharing imagery sets it free and could inspire so many outcomes. However, it's clear that ownership, luxury and status are still factors that mean people are always looking for something that can be theirs and theirs only.

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