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Artists and Big Tech: A Cautionary Note

There is no doubt our world is more digitally connected than ever before. Access to the internet, and the information it provides, has become a crucial lifeline, especially as we adapt to public health protocols in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. For better or worse, we are also discovering new ways of sharing our work and experiencing art in alternative formats online. We are quickly learning what works and what doesn’t, and sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference.

Tech giants like Apple, Google, Netflix, and Facebook offer a wider global accessibility for sharing and consuming creative content, while reducing barriers like cost and location. They are increasingly finding new ways to develop and market the availability of that content, but artists are not always compensated for those uses. As we all know, free often comes at a cost to someone, and with Big Tech companies, there is really no such thing as “free”.

Google Arts & Culture (GAC), launched in 2011 as the Google Art Project, is a platform featuring ultra high-resolution reproductions of artworks and cultural artifacts from over 2,000 museums and cultural institutions world-wide. The platform allows viewers to zoom deeply into an artwork to see the tiniest of details. You can create your own digital gallery of your favorite artworks, chosen from different public collections around the world (as shown in the example provided). For some artworks, you can use Google Street View to see works installed in an exhibition, or you can use an app for an augmented reality experience, whereby you can see what that work would look like in your own home.

We can now experience public art collections in new and exciting ways, but that does not come without its problems. The images that are posted are very high resolution, which goes against standard practice when sharing images online. The sharper the image, the easier it is to copy and mass produce, which can damage artists’ livelihoods and reputations. We generally advocate for as much protection as possible, and we recommend when images are shared online, that they be done so at a resolution of 72 dpi, that watermarks be placed on images if possible, and that a copyright notice be placed in proximity to the image, to offer greater security for those images.

One of the expected benefits of the platform was that it would increase attendance at museums and galleries, and traffic to their websites. However, one of the criticisms of GAC is that it competes with museums for a web audience.  For example, when you search for a specific artwork (and you’re most likely using Google’s search engine to do that), it often drives traffic to GAC rather than the museum or collection where the work resides. Try it: do a Google search of The Starry Night, and you’ll see the way GAC is marketed with a huge image of the work is dramatically different from other links in the list.

This almost certainly happened with the #ArtSelfie project, where people are encouraged to take a selfie photo, and the GAC app will match you with your doppelganger from a famous portrait. The artist and museum name are credited, but it’s far more likely that sharing these images drives more traffic to GAC than anywhere else. There are plenty of valid reasons not to allow your work to be used this way, from privacy issues to the lack of diversity and racial bias evident in the images available to choose from – which is also a problem of museum portrait collections, in general.

Another key concern is the lack of transparency of Google’s full intentions when artworks are shared in this manner, and the exclusion of artists from sharing in the profits of the monetization of content through advertising. Google’s parent company Alphabet made rather a lot of money shortly after launching that app. As William Deresiewicz writes:

“The truth is that digitization has not really demonetized the arts. Someone has been making money, but that someone isn’t artists: For those who are counting the clicks and selling the resulting data, “free content” is a gold mine. Silicon Valley in general, and the tech giants in particular—above all, Google, Facebook, and Amazon—have engineered a vast and ongoing transfer of wealth, on the order of tens of billions of dollars a year,  from creators to distributors, from artists to Big Tech…”

Google does not pay institutions to participate in GAC and they sign a license for use directly with them, rather than artists. Some participating institutions pay artists to participate through a sublicense, but the rates are often far lower than they should be considering the type of use, and the parties involved. For inclusion in a project like this, Section B.8.2 of the CARFAC-RAAV Minimum Recommended Fee Schedule could be used as the basis for developing a long-term license. The current rate would be a minimum of $464/year, and that seems low considering the profits made on content. Commercial rates should be used because the works are posted on a platform hosted by Google, a corporation now worth over $1 Trillion USD. It might be a free service, but Google and other tech giants are reaping significant financial benefit from free access to creative content.

Fortunately, most Canadian cultural institutions are not participating in GAC. With over 2,000 institutions involved in the project world-wide, only 30 are Canadian, and very few of them are art galleries that have contributed images of contemporary Canadian art. The Canada Council Art Bank is by far the most active contributor, with respect to posts of contemporary Canadian art, and we have been in contact with them and other Arts Service Organizations, about how to create best practices for considering involvement and development of new digital tools and technologies for sharing art in public collections. It is critical that artists be consulted as these tools are developed, as they will be used to share artists’ work to a wider audience.

As culture continues to integrate with Big Tech, there are, of course other considerations we must make in regards to engaging with these companies–considerations that apply to artists, but extend far beyond the cultural sector. We know that companies like Google, Facebook, and others offer “free” services, but in return we, as users, offer substantial data that is used not only to track, but to predict, our behaviour. This data is commoditized to the enrichment of Big Tech, and to the benefit of companies purchasing this data for the purpose of designing and targeting advertising, and gaining a deeper understanding of how we think and behave. The centralization of this information grows alongside the centralization of wealth and power, and we are concerned that arts and culture may, however inadvertently, be accelerating these outcomes. We do not want to see an arts sector dominated by any one institution or company, and we fear that by engaging with these “free” opportunities, we may be turning over much more than copyright to Google, or to others players in Big Tech. Indeed, issues of copyright and licensing play out alongside transgressions of privacy, and ever growing reaches of surveillance over our personal behaviours, business, commerce, relationships, and other domains we likely never intended to reveal to one of the world’s biggest and most powerful corporations.

Artists hold the unique position, and perhaps even the responsibility, of monitoring, analyzing, and reflecting on the evolution of culture, while putting forth new perspectives and possibilities that very often fall outside of the mainstream. Participating in programs from Google or from other Big Tech players puts at risk the very independence required for artists to inspire critical thinking, and to ultimately push back and foster a spirit of resistance against dangerous global superpowers, be they in the digital space, or otherwise.

We appreciate that institutions who participate in sharing content on these platforms do it because they want to make their collections more discoverable and accessible. Google’s intentions are far less honourable, as we’ve seen through the evolution of Google Books. We therefore do not believe participation in GAC is in the best interests of artists, museums, or other cultural institutions. We want to see technological advancements that allow greater access to creative content – but artists must be part of the process.