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Authorship and Ownership



Authorship and ownership are often important considerations in any social practice project and there are many different approaches to how this is treated. 

The distinction between these two terms is worth noting. For example, in the case where a local authority commissions a mural from an artist, the local authority then owns the mural but the artist will always be recognised as the author and credited as such in all publicity.  In socially engaged contexts, a project is usually co-authored by an artist and the group they work with. So a mural created as part of a project of this kind would have both artist and group members credited as authors or co-authors. The ownership of that mural may be subject to factors such as the conditions of funding by the funding/commissioning body.  As owner for example, the local authority can paint over the mural; however, an author (ie. artist or artist plus group) can negotiate around permissions (and a fee) for its reproduction, for example on a postcard.

It may be appropriate to discuss authorship and ownership at an early stage in planning and include your decisions in an MOU, or it may be premature. If the latter, it may be valuable to note this and include reference to revisiting the topic at the appropriate time in the future. 

While the inspiration and source material for a project, as well as different skills employed may come from within the group, the success of the project will often rely on your expertise and experience and the group look to you for leadership (which shouldn’t be confused with ownership). In a scenario where you are working with a community group, your expertise as a professional artist will no doubt be clear and thus that leadership recognised. However acknowledgement of the expertise of the group with whom you work, such as their knowledge and contextual experience, ensures an equity of exchange. This is useful to keep in mind to prevent the emergence of a hierarchy. Hierarchal structures may not be conducive to the project objectives but rather directly conflict with efforts to work in collaboration. 

Furthermore, ownership in this context is not about Intellectual Property in the conventional sense; it is rare that anything of any monetary value arises from social practice projects. Ownership in this context is more often an abstract notion and describes the investment made in the project and the skills and experience that each person brings to it. Some artists can be reluctant to claim ownership in order to draw a distinction between a social practice project and other strands of their practice as a solo artist, or from an altruistic desire to confer acclaim solely onto the community group members. However, failing to claim any ownership may be interpreted by the group and others as an indication that you ascribe a lesser value to the project. Equally an artist may seek to claim too much ownership of the project and fail to sufficiently recognise the contribution and investment of others involved. It is important to consider ownership meaningfully and be truthful about it. Like the content of an MOU, a clear and agreed understanding of ownership can be an important means for everyone involved to recognise and respect each party’s contribution and role. Whatever you decide on will likely feature in any publicity material created.

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