BUT IS IT ART? BUT IS IT COPYRIGHT?

A small argument has broken out on Wikipedia about whether a photo of a soup bowl can be included. The bowl (left) was part of the St Ives Pottery’s range of standard wares, introduced in the 1940s by Bernard Leach and his son David to provide an income stream for the pottery. Making standard ware was how generations of potters learned their trade in the much-coveted Leach pottery apprenticeships.

Someone said that the photo was a breach of copyright and that it had to be removed from Wikipedia. Like all artists, I’m concerned to protect my intellectual property, but I don’t know much about copyright law, and the law as it applies here is complex.

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (section 62) says that an artist has copyright in a work of “artistic craftsmanship”.  Such work can’t be copied and a photo of it taken without the artist’s consent is a breach of copyright. An exemption is made for works of artistic craftsmanship displayed in public places. But the pot in this this photo is in the photographer’s private collection, and, odd as it may seem, that means that section 62 doesn’t apply.

There’s another exemption for “fair dealing” where copying is done for the purposes of private study, non-commercial research, criticism, review or comment on current events. Whether this covers Wikipedia or not is a question I leave to the copyright lawyers, but Wikipedia errs on the side of caution and removes anything doubtful.

A more interesting question, however, is whether the bowl is a work of artistic craftsmanship. These bowls were made in huge quantities – over the years thousands of identical bowls were produced. It’s an example of mass production by hand in which the distinction between “craft” and “manufacture” becomes blurred. In the Wikipedia debate, someone said it was “limited repeat production by hand” rather than mass production, i.e. that work made by hand cannot be mass production, which only machines can do. That’s a distinction without a difference. Almost nothing is made by hand without tools and there’s no meaningful difference between tools and machines. Delft tile makers, who worked without machines, are estimated to have made eight hundred million tiles in two hundred years. What is that if not mass production?

Craft is a slippery concept and is virtually impossible to define. David Pye, the most trenchant writer on the subject, said that craft is sometimes defined in a way that makes it impossible to tell by looking whether a product is the work of a craftsman or not. The way it was defined was inconsistent and contradictory: items that were not works of craftsmanship said to be

  • Imprecise, or 
  • Precise, or
  • Unskilful, or
  • Made to someone else’s design, or
  • Made by power-driven tools, or
  • Producing a series of perhaps more than six things of the same design, or
  • Not made by the same person from start to finish.

The law protects intellectual property in artistic crafts, but not in crafts as such – so not a thatched roof, for example. In artistic craftsmanship there has to be

  • A conscious intention to produce a work of art
  • A real artistic or aesthetic quality
  • A sufficient degree of craftsmanship and artistry (existing simultaneously)

Considering that Bernard Leach had such an ambivalent attitude to fine art and that he adhered to Yanagi Soetsu’s ideology of the Unknown Craftsman, it’s arguable that there was no intention to produce a work of art in the making of a thousand identical soup bowls. This bowl, made by an Unknown Apprentice, is just a bowl and anyone can take a photo of it.

7 thoughts on “BUT IS IT ART? BUT IS IT COPYRIGHT?

  1. Interesting piece. Just wondering why pots by Wedgewood, Whealdon, Moorcroft etc that were produced in huge numbers (probably greater numbers than Leach Pottery Lidded Soup Bowls) are commonly illustrated without apparently contravening copyright laws. Seems very strange to my thinking.

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  2. I took this photograph and whilst I don't think it's a particularly good one technically, it has illustrated a number of Wikipedia articles for some years with no complaints.
    The latest comment from a senior Wikipedia edit states
    “(1) Section 62 of the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 allows photographers to take pictures of buildings, and sculptures, models for buildings and works of artistic craftsmanship without breaching copyright. Such photographs may be published in any way. (2) Since the item in question is in the possession of the photographer, he is permitted to photograph it and to publish the photo. (3) Since publication in Wikipedia is not for profit the copyright holder does not suffer any loss by it.”
    I wait with interest to see what the final decision will be!

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  3. I agree totally with your argument on the use of the photo actually. It was me that objected to the photo on Wiki (I don't go with the Wikipedia anonymity thing – I am happy to own my comments) but not because of the image or the use of the pots but because of the way Wiki works – or did in my experience.
    To give it some context – I have the task of dealing with copyright on Leach pots and have never before objected to the use of an image and have only once charged for use. I always take the view that the pots were made to be used and shared and so the images should be out there too. However, on my first proper foray into the world of Wiki – prompted by others to update Leach information – I was dismayed to find how hard it is to get things changed and how tight the gate-keeping is. I am sure that's a good thing but it is frustrating as a newcomer to be faced with layers of bureaucracy when you just want to make an amendment or improve the information that is available to the public. I now realise that there is a Wiki etiquette here that I was not familiar with and I had waded into it blindly only to be smacked down with ‘copyright’ and ‘self-promotion’. It seems I was breaking copyright laws on the writing despite being the original author of the work and providing appropriate references. I was also promoting the pottery although it could be argued that as an educational charity we are best placed to write about it. I raised the issue of copyright over the pot photo simply to make a rather clumsy point – that copyright is not so straightforward and that even those who try to protect it (as do the Wiki editors) may also be infringing it unwittingly. In this case I think you are right and there is no infringement – though I am no legal expert on the matter. It was the owner who chose to take the photo down and who suggested I make a deletion request. I followed his advice – as a Wiki rookie – thinking this was the correct procedure. The question over crafts and copyright is a very grey area and one which will surely send us all to sleep if considered for too long. After all – it's the pots, stupid!

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  4. The best way to make an edit on a page you have an interest in is to suggest it on the talk page and ask someone else to add it. Wikipedia editing has got more difficult over the years because of vandalism and blatant self-promotion and newcomers are being discouraged by the bureaucracy. The wonder is not that Wikipedia has so many bad articles but that is has any good one, considering that anyone can edit it.

    I agree that “it's the pots stupid”, and, to be fair to the photographer, there was an acknowledgement of sorts in the caption.

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  5. I would like to add to my above comment that the editor (above) ended up helping me hugely with getting the page updated. Thank you Mabena! I apologize for wading in with hobnail boots on!

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  6. Your context Julia is acutely accurate As a senior Wikipedia editor of many years standing it's easy to forget how complex the whole editing process is for a newcomer, given that we tell one and all that “anyone can edit” I am passionate about editing Wikipedia and I'm sorry if my initial comments to you appeared harsh but they did follow Wikipedia's guidelines very precisely. I have written many articles about studio pottery and I'm happy to reveal my real name too, I am Andy Titcomb, google me for more details. All good wishes and if you would like any more help with the Leach Pottery article just leave a message on the article's talk page.

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