Hogarth was one of the most well received artists of his time in eighteenth century England and because of this was plagued by a following of copy artists who damaged his ability to profit from his own work. Eventually, the Engraver's Act, (which because of his extensive efforts would become known as the Hogarth Act), created one of the first copyright laws to protect artists rights, and began to shape the basis for the modern art market.
Hogarth was in a unique position, he was not only a painter, but also an engraver, distributer, and advertiser of his own works. He was therefore able to cut out the middlemen of engravers and print-sellers (Paulson, 36). However, this put the extra burden on him to reproduce mass quantities of his works and sell them himself. He continually lost profits to cheap copies of his engravings sold at much lower prices. Initial attempts to circumvent plagiarism involved selling his engravings in sets of “limited editions” to patrons with subscriptions (Paulson, 36). However, he was constrained from further profiting off of his own works when he reached the limit of engravings he had set fourth. Paradoxically, his strategy to remain profitable in the art market limited his right to his own property.
One of the issues Hogarth grappled with was the “analogy between the emulation of upper-class behavior and the copying of art: both are based on the assumption that the copy is as good as the original” (Paulson, 36). He brought this issue to light through satire in perhaps his best known work, The Beggar's Opera of 1728 (Simon, 257). Hogarth afterward produced a series of paintings depicting his “opera,” thought the legitimacy of one of the paintings is questionable. Many of its details are not consistent with the other paintings, such as personal characteristics of the subjects, stylistic inconsistencies, and the handling of the paint itself (Simon, 259). One speculation is that this painting was commissioned to an anonymous artist by the owner of the New Theater in Lincoln's Inn Fields, which had produced The Beggar's Opera (Simon, 268). Either way, Hogarth wanted to protect his own interests and his copyright law was in the works.
Hogarth began to form his own act on the basis on the Literary Copyright Act of 1709, which gave copyrights to owners for twenty-one years, and copiers would have to pay fines if caught (Paulson, 37). He cited this act in an initial pamphlet, and included his thoughts on the need for “Improvement of the Arts” in England, which prescribed giving power back to the artists through copyright law, allowing them to profit without fear of copiers, and to give them leverage with print-sellers (Paulson, 37). Hogarth's proposed solution was to pass a law “against one artists copying the designs of another. By “copying” is meant a shape-for-shape, distance-for-distance, part-for-part reproduction” (Paulson, 37). Soon after this pamphlet, Hogarth, along with a few others, petitioned Parliament. The committee approved and ordered that, “leave be given to bring in a Bill for the Encouragement of the Arts of designing, engraving, and etching, historical and other Prints, by vesting the Properties thereof in the Inventors and Engravers, during the Time therein to be mentioned” (Paulson, 40). The act ensured artists rights to their works for fourteen years, and was to go into effect on June 25th 1735 At that time Hogarth decided to delay the publication of his latest work for fear of copying. However, a print-seller sent copy artists to Hogarth's residence under the guise of interested patrons, and copies of the work were available for sale before the newly formed Engraver's Act went into effect (Paulson, 42). In a genius move to compete with the knock offs, Hogarth permitted his originals to be copied by an approved engraver and sold those copies at a competitive price (Paulson, 43). Thus the new market strategy was to sell original works at a higher price with subscription, and at a lower price “with the usual allowance” to print dealers (Paulson, 44). The passing of Hogarth's Act as well as Hogarth's ingenious strategies of advertising, allowed for the replacement of personal patronage and helped to bring about the emergence of the modern art market in Britain.
The issues of copyright in Hogarth's time are still dealt with today, though it extends to other arts such as music, photography, film, and fashion. The copyright issues brought up with Napster in early 2000 is a particularly important example in the development of modern copyright law and of the arts market. Similar to the issues Hogarth dealt with, Napster was intended to bypass the exorbitant profit of middlemen (record companies and distributors). However, Napster primarily benefited the audience, as songs were distributed and downloaded for free. Copyright infringement suits were bought against the company, and although the court found Napster capable of non copyright infringing uses, and in some cases, a useful marketing tool, it was shut down in 2000 . In its aftermath, Napster was replaced by promotional downloads and pay services, both protective of artists rights but with much less marketing power.
While the modern day creative arts market has developed more complex and experimental modes of interaction between artists and their audiences, the basic copyright issues and the marketing techniques that Hogarth developed are continuing to evolve and shape the market today.
Paulson, Ronald. Hogarth: High Art and Low.
Simon, Robin. Hogarth, France, and British Art: The Rise of the Arts in 18th-Century Britain.