Blog / 2012 / The Subtleties of Copyright: An Interview with Paul Kinsella

December 3, 2012

As I was scouring the interwebs for an image that I was positive someone must have created, an image to illustrate this post, I came across this cartoon by Paul Kinsella on

Paul Kinsella’s Copyright 1340 B.C. God (Moses)
Paul Kinsella’s Copyright 1340 B.C. God (Moses)

My first reaction was a good chuckle, since I read this cartoon as an eloquent critique of copyright. My second reaction was confusion. The dissonance between the seeming critique and the extensive (and completely ugly) watermarks hurt my brain. It made me think of this cartoon by Nina Paley.

Nina Paley’s Watermark
Nina Paley’s Watermark

Once I got over what appeared to be a logical disconnect, I realized that I might have misread Kinsella’s Copyright 1340 B.C. God (Moses), so I decided to ask him some questions and he was gracious enough to respond.

GWENN: What does this cartoon mean to you?

PAUL: I meant to cartoon to have three possible meanings:

  1. It was mostly a “incongruity gag.” (A cartoon with something in a setting that it clearly does not belong. Like a camp fire underwater.) A copyright on stone tablets, over 2000 years ago, is clearly a incongruity.
  2. It was also a subtle jab at organized religion. If the ten commandments where truly written by an omnipotent being - why didn’t God bother to copyright his work in some way?
  3. And, yes, it was also a comment on how copyrights and trademarks are on almost everything now.

GWENN: If Copyright 1340 B.C. God (Moses) is not a critique of copyright (and even if it is), what are your thoughts about copyright law?

PAUL: Copyrights, as I understand it, really only deter people who want to use art for profit in some way. Hallmark, for example, would NEVER use a copyrighted cartoon without permission. Why would they risk costly litigation when they can buy or rent the cartoon for a very reasonable price. A “normal” person emailing a cartoon on a forum has very little to worry about. And that is OK with me. I don’t care if someone wants to post my cartoon on Facebook. In fact I LOVE that. But if someone is making money off it - I want my cut.

GWENN: Do you make money from your art? If you do, what role do watermarks and sites like play in your ability to do so?

PAUL: I totally LOVE cartoonstock. I spent years trying to get newspapers and cartoon syndicates to notice me. It is hard spending hours every day on art that no one will publish or pay for. So I eventually gave up and my cartooning carreer went into a coma for over 10 years. Cartoonstock rents out my cartoons to all sorts of customers and they share the profits with me 50/50. Granted I’m only earning about $10.00 a day, but that is $10 more then I was making before. And I know that my stuff is getting SEEN! This has inspired me to go back to cartooning every day.

GWENN: Do you have any advice for cartoonists who are just starting out? About copyright and making a living as an artist or anything else?

PAUL: For a cartoonist who is new and who’s is not quite ready for the big time - I recommend practice. A few hours a day for a year will make almost anyone better at almost anything. For cartoonist who are ready to make money - start building a portfolio. Select about 20 of your best and submit them to the syndicates and for consideration.


This brief interview thrills me. Although Kinsella and I don’t agree on the usefulness copyright, I’m always glad to meet an artist who’s thinking about the subtleties of intellectual property instead of trying to sue anyone who so much as looks at their work.

Copyright is a complex beast, something with which any creative with a soul should have a love-hate relationship. And although I fall squarely in the free culture camp by advocating a lawless approach to both the making and the using of culture, I understand that others might take a different tack. All I really want is for us to dig into how copyright, money, and creativity are intertwined, and for artists everywhere to think twice before slapping a © on their work.

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


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