Scene from any of the last few centuries: An artist paints a picture and attempts to exhibit and sell the work.
Scenario possible only over the last decade: The artist's image is scanned into a computer, placed on the Internet and downloaded worldwide, wherever someone wants a copy of the artwork.
Fortunately for Michael Whelan, a book illustrator in Danbury, Conn., a friend happened to be looking through a computer bulletin board when he came upon a few of Whelan's images being offered for sale.
Nowhere, however, did it say that Whelan was the artist, and, in fact, the copyright notice had been deleted. The images themselves had been altered with, in one case, mountains replaced by a sign that said "Welcome to the World of Macintosh."
At least two copyright laws were violated by an unknown number of electronic services that had appropriated Whelan's work.
If Whelan was lucky to have a friend find his work on a computer bulletin board, New York City illustrator Bill Lombardo was less fortunate. A friend found his work on a bulletin board, but, Lombardo said, "before I could bring a lawsuit, the company that had done this had gone out of business."
It was slightly easier to steal Lombardo's work than Whelan's because Lombardo creates images directly on the computer -- sending disks of his artwork to the companies that employ his services, which unfortunately allows anyone with access to those disks to copy his designs.
Printed images scanned
Whelan, on the other hand, is a painter whose works were reproduced on or in books. To appropriate them, someone needs an electronic scanner to pick up the image from a book (or print or poster). The image then becomes "digitalized" within a computer.
The danger that scanners pose to an artist's copyright isn't just a point of arcane concern for artists. Most major advertising agencies, design studios and magazines have this advanced equipment.
Picture-resolution is so good with these high-powered computers that it is now far more difficult to determine which is the original and which is the copy than it was in the pre-computer past, when photographic reproduction was the main source of copyright infringement.
"The ability of so many people to gain access to an original work of art in this way, the ease with which images can be digitalized, manipulated and then transferred, overshadows the question of right and wrong for a lot of people," said Paul Bassista, executive director of the Graphic Artists Guild.
"It is now so easy to do, and the chances of getting caught relatively nil, that people believe that infringing on an artist's copyright is basically OK."
New computer technology has presented a serious challenge to artists' copyright protections. Copyright -- the right of authors and artists to control the use of their artistic work -- involves the exclusive use of private property, while the computer world values usable and immediate public access.
Ethos of Internet
"The ethos of the Internet," said Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University in New York City, "is that anything online may be downloaded, cut, copied and sent along to others."
Copyright has proven to be an elastic concept over the two centuries that it has existed in law.
Statutes first referred exclusively to the printed word but were later amended to encompass works of visual art.
They were expanded to permit artists' ownership of copyright even after they sold the physical artwork, and again broadened to include "moral rights," preventing intentional alteration, damage and destruction of the physical work of art. Periodic judicial rulings also have widened the scope of copyright protections here and there.
All these changes and additions have given creators increased control over their artwork.
The Internet, on the other hand, makes that control more tenuous because of the computer-world ethos and technology that can place written and visual information wherever there is a computer, a modem and a telephone.
Traditional copyright law covers the areas of potential infringement, such as scanning (unless specifically permitted by the artist) and manipulating an image on the computer screen, perhaps creating a derivative work based on the original image.
The problems of enforcing copyright are related to the speed with which images may be scanned, altered and transmitted: First, one must track who is doing what with an artist's work; second, the process of seeking an injunction or trying a copyright infringement case in the courts is time-consuming and expensive.
The art world has no organization such as the music industry's American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) to extract royalty payments whenever a composer's or musician's work is performed or broadcast.
Problem is epidemic
The laws are definitely on the side of artists, yet copyright infringement by high-tech means is reaching epidemic proportions.