More NFT controversy: major copyright battle looms over launch

More NFT controversy: major copyright battle looms over launch of ‘free’ August Sander photographs

A seemingly altruistic move by the German photographer’s descendant to put archive on the blockchain has sparked a copyright row – and questions around the future of the NFT market

Art dealer and gallerist Julian Sander has made thousands of portraits that his great-grandfather August Sanderc made for his People of the Twentieth Century project available on the blockchain.

The move was meant to be pioneering and historic, as it marked the first time that the archive of a major photographic figure would be able as an NFT (non-fungible token). However Julian Sander has now called The August Sander 10K Collection a disaster (or ruder words to that effect), as a long-established cultural foundation in Germany has asserted a huge copyright claim over the August Sander archive and launched a court case against it. This is important because it could set a precedent for how NFTs are sold on the market, particularly with emerging photographers looking to enter.

The collection was supposed to be historic. It would mark the first time the archive of a major figure in the history of photography would be made available as NFTs, allowing a historically significant photography collection to be communally owned on the blockchain.

But now, a long-established cultural foundation in Germany has stuck a serious spoke in the wheels of the project, making a huge copyright claim over the August Sander archive. The ensuing court case could set a new precedent—one that may have widespread ramifications for the many photographers who are grappling with how to enter the emerging NFT market.

What is the backstory here?

Julian Sander is the great-grandson of August Sander – who is commonly thought of as a major pioneer of photography. Julian’s plan was simple: to make his relatives entire archive—all 10,700 photographs—available as NFTs on the blockchain marketplace OpenSea. 

He didn’t want any money for the images, though. They would, Julian Sander wrote, be “given away as NFTs for free”, as buyers would only need to pay admin fees, known as minting fees, to own a digital version. The aim was to make the legacy of August well known on the blockchain.

The project went live on 10 February, driven by Julian Sander’s reputation as an art dealer based in Cologne. He launched the project with help from the Fellowship Trust, which is an NFT photography initiative.

August Sander has a historic contribution to photography, and became immersed with the radical artist group the Cologne Progressives. Photographic collectors might dream of owning an original Sander print, and as you’d expect, trades of the 10K Collection were rapid – the equivalent of around $1.1m was traded in a few weeks. 

Those lucky enough to access a Sander purchase did so on their social media feeds. And then, almost immediately the collection disappeared, delisted from OpenSea. 

Why? It is claimed that Julian Sander did not and does not own the copyright to August Sander’s body of work. If this is true, then The 10k Collection is a violation of copyright law, and all the NFTs trades might be in breach.

SK Stiftung Kultur, a Cologne-based nonprofit cultural foundation made the copyright claim. It says that In 1992, Julian’s father and August’s grandson Gerd Sander, also a Cologne gallerist, sold August Sander’s archive to SK Stiftung Kultur, with whom he had worked closely throughout his career. 

If this is true then SK Stiftung Kultur holds the copyright to the archive until 20 April 2034, not Sander’s family.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Sander described the takedown notice as “A ridiculous waste of time and money for everybody.”

However, the motives of Sander are now being questioned, too. At the beginning of the project he positioned the ‘free’ 10K Collection as a unique way to distribute and share of Sander’s archive. “We are building a platform to help this collection become a case study of how photographic legacies can be not just preserved but amplified by community, decentralisation and the blockchain.”

But while buying an August Sander NFT might have seemed close to free, a closer look at the royalties scheme revealed that for all resale transactions, a 10% royalty cut would be taken, with Julian Sander receiving 7.5% of all resales.

Why should we care?

Although it might not seem like it, this dispute around copyright ownership – and how it gets resolved – could be incredibly pertinent to how the work of photographers is sold on the blockchain in the future.

Sander believes that selling work in the OpenSea NFT ‘marketplace’ is as valid as selling pictures in a physical art fair or gallery. “One of the things SK and their attorneys misunderstand is they look at OpenSea as if it were Google Images,” he says, adding that he was going to split any royalties from resales with SK Stiftung Kultur.

For now, it seems that SK Stiftung Kultur and Juliam Sander are now locked in a legal disagreement, and we’ll watch carefully to see the outcome – which will determine more than the future of this project, but perhaps even the way that copyright law translates to the “Wild West” of blockchain technology and ownership.

Published By : Digital Camera World

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