Regarding Limited-Edition Photographic Prints

July 09, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

The Internet and virtually all forms of media, printed and otherwise, has been abuzz with information, questions, and opinions about the definition of a so-called limited-edition photographic print.  Even the U.S. Copyright Office has its own definition:

A “work of visual art” is—
(1) a painting, drawing, print or sculpture, existing in a single copy, in a
limited edition of 200 copies or fewer that are signed and consecutively numbered
by the author, or, in the case of a sculpture, in multiple cast, carved, or
fabricated sculptures of 200 or fewer that are consecutively numbered by the
author and bear the signature or other identifying mark of the author; or
(2) a still photographic image produced for exhibition purposes only, existing
in a single copy that is signed by the author, or in a limited edition
of 200 copies or fewer that are signed and consecutively numbered by the
author.
A work of visual art does not include—
(A)(i) any poster, map, globe, chart, technical drawing, diagram, model,
applied art, motion picture or other audiovisual work, book, magazine,
newspaper, periodical, data base, electronic information service, electronic
publication, or similar publication;
(ii) any merchandising item or advertising, promotional, descriptive,
covering, or packaging material or container;
(iii) any portion or part of any item described in clause (i) or (ii);
(B) any work made for hire; or
(C) any work not subject to copyright protection under this title.

(you can get the complete Subject Matter and Scope of Copyright PDF here.)

But this definition (paragraph 2) in no way addresses the main issue, which is what is the definition of a limited-edition produced for SALE? The copyright office definition explicitly applies to "exhibition purposes only".  It seems that every artist/photographer has a personal definition of a limited-edition as applied to their own print sales.  Rather than go into a rambling diatribe of examples, I'll let the really interested reader "Google it".

All of the definitions that I've read or heard about - including the copyright office version above - refer to a PIECE OF PAPER!  I'll wager that when a buyer or collector of photographs makes a purchase, they're not thinking about a piece of paper.  They're thinking about the image printed on that piece of paper.  Makes sense, right?  Isn't that what it's all about, the image itself?  And doesn't it follow that there is only one of any given image negative or digital file, even though multiple different variations are possible from each?  I'm saying that every single photograph that exists on this planet started out with a single negative or file and that that negative or file creates the printed image and is the soul and center of ALL limited-edition photographic prints.  Again, IT'S ABOUT THE IMAGE ITSELF, NOT WHAT THE IMAGE IS PRINTED ON OR HOW MANY TIMES AND IN WHAT SIZES THE IMAGE IS PRINTED.

I think what chaps me most, are photographers that create a limited-edition in a specific size on a specific paper, then turn around and create another limited-edition from the exact same negative/file as the first limited-edition in a different size and/or on a different paper.  This practice is pure greed and nothing else.  Creating limited-edition photographic prints is a capitalistic pursuit that has nothing to do with the act of actually creating art. As others have expounded elsewhere, the only reason to create limited-editions is to create an artificial shortage of the print in order to increase the selling price so the artist can make more money.

Well, that's one thing, ethical or not in the opinion of the artist's peers, but to intentionally and repeatedly reproduce the same limited-edition image is deceitful and dishonest, if not illegal.  And size does not matter.  The IMAGE ITSELF is the only thing that matters.  Now, I think there are three categories of photographic print buyers.  First, there are those that buy as an investment, expecting the value of the print to increase over time.  I don't claim to know the criteria used by investment-buyers to determine what prints they buy.  But, if I were such a buyer, I would not be interested in purchasing any print that was produced in limited-edition quantities of 200; or 100, or 50, or 25, or even 10.  I might consider a purchase from a limited-edition of 5 and less.  Obviously, the fewer copies of an image that exist, the more valuable it may ultimately become.  Second, there are the true collectors.  In addition to buying as an investment, these buyers purchase prints because they like them, and because they are rare or one-of-a-kind, and because they enjoy collecting.  Typically these prints would be from the old masters and the original number of prints produced would be irrelevant if the remaining quantity is known to be very few, but there are also serious collectors of recent work as well.  Third, there are those that buy just because they like the image.  These buyers aren't likely to care what quantities the image is produced in, or whether or not it is part of a limited-edition.

The recent ruling by a judge in the lawsuit Sobel vs Eggleston is clearly wrong.  Either the judge was completely out of his element or doesn't know the meaning of the word 'ethical'. This article and the links it contains explain what it's all about for those not familiar with the case.  Eggleston's behavior may not (unfortunately) have been illegal, but it was most certainly unethical.  I believe that Mr. Eggleston's unethical behavior combined with the judge's errant ruling have, in effect, significantly devalued existing photographic artwork created by living artists and owned by collectors.

So, since the creation of limited-editions isn't likely to stop, how should they be produced and sold?  While I don't currently offer any of my work as limited-editions, if I ever decide to, I will create editions of no more than three (200 is a ridiculously high number) numbered prints.  The prints may all be the same size and on the same paper type, or they may each be a different size and each on a different paper type.  Also, all of the prints may be in color, or all may be black and white, or some may be color and some black and white.  Since my work is digital, I may print all on the same printer, or each on a different printer.  I may create all images using the same digital processing, or I may process each image using different processes.  But, in the end there will only ever be a total of three limited-edition prints of that particular image produced for sale.  No prints will be produced for giving to friends or relatives as gifts.  I will not destroy the digital file and I will hold all copyrights.  I may produce prints for display in whatever venue I choose, including display on one or more websites.  Physical prints created for display will not become part of my estate and will be destroyed upon my death, as will all digital files except for low resolution web images.  All of the above will be defined in a legal, binding contract signed by me and accompanying each of the three numbered prints.  If a collector likes my work enough to buy a limited-edition print, I will do everything I can to protect their investment and their trust in me.  It's the ethical thing to do, and I can sleep at night.

To me, the basic concept and practice of creating limited-edition photographic prints is simple and straight-forward.  Indeed, it was considered so by the old masters, because, to my knowledge, none behaved as Mr. Eggleston has.  Today though, it has apparently been corrupted, like so many other things, by greedy and unprincipled individuals whose only purpose in creating art is to make a buck any way they can.


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