Judge Rules William Eggleston Can Clone His Own Work


General Photography

About a year ago, I mentioned a lawsuit by a collector, filed after William Eggleston decided to re-print older photographs, using inkjet printing and a larger size. A judge now ruled that the photographer had the right to do that. On the surface, that’s great news for photographers. It also blows a huge hole into the whole editioning game that galleries have been relying on. (more)

Most photographs can be printed in large numbers, so it’s not all that obvious why someone would pay a lot of money for a photograph. Editions provide an easy solution: Even though there could be thousands of copies of a single photograph, the promise is that there will be merely, let’s say, eight. If you buy a print you got one out of only eight, and this - artificial - scarcity then justifies your investment. Thus, as a photographer you need to think about editions if you want to work with a gallery, since that’s part of the game.

What this means is that if you want to re-print a photograph that was issued in some edition you can’t - unless, and here’s the trick, you can show that your new edition is very different. That’s essentially what the Eggleston lawsuit was about. And why wouldn’t a somewhat different size plus a somewhat different process truly be a different edition, right?

Except that there’s also the psychology of all of this. If you spend thousands of dollars on a print, being told that there’s a limited edition etc., it’s pretty simple to see how you’d be more than merely miffed if suddenly there’s another edition. So while the decision by the judge is good news for photographers, it tells collectors that the game of editions essentially is, well, probably not to be believed: After all, if you’re a collector who will now guarantee that some photographer does not decide to come up with a different edition?

The editions game has always relied on photographers not doing that. The game has always involved talking about a fixed set of editions (let’s say, two sizes, one at some amount, the other, larger, one at a higher amount). The ruling has blown a huge hole into this game. If a photographer can this easily argue her or his way around artificial scarcity, then the very idea of scarcity is flawed, is not to be believed. Game over.

It will be interesting to see how the photography-art market is going to deal with this.