Chris Sprigman calls it the “creativity effect.” It means, simply, that artists frequently value their work more than the market does.
As a result, artists “do a relatively poor job of getting things sold,” said Sprigman, an intellectual property law professor at the University of Virginia.
Sprigman worked with longtime friend and colleague Chris Buccafusco, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, on a two-year project analyzing artists’ tendency to overestimate the value of their work.
The pair’s previous research revealed that artists and potential buyers assign significantly different values to a creative work, meaning buyers and sellers start price negotiations at very different places.
That's at least partly because artists don't view their work strictly from a business perspective.
Lee Alter, a Charlottesville-based watercolorist with more than 40 years of experience, said she charges more when she views her work as having "captured the essence" of the person or object she painted.
She recalled rejecting an offer for one of her "signature pieces," for example, because she could not part with it for just a few hundred dollars.
"I can't sell it to somebody who wants to pay just 500 bucks. It's kind of not respectful to the artwork," Alter said.
The possibility of getting published with credit is enough to sway some artists to lower prices, Sprigman and Buccafusco found in a recent experiment.
One group of artists was asked to sell contest rights to a potential $1,000 award. The average low price was $243. Another group was offered the chance to sell photos with credit on a well-trafficked website. The average low was $165.
The possibility of attribution prompted artists to lower their prices, but the prospect of publication alone did not, Sprigman said. Most photographers thought they were likely to win the competition, he added.
Artists are significantly attached to their artwork, Sprigman explained, which makes it difficult to sell the rights.
“It’s those losses that we have in this world of biases and mistakes and overvaluation that are potentially really harming the public and the creators,” Buccafusco said.
The business realities aren't lost on Scottsville painter Bob Cronk.
"You can spend hours and hours on a work and then turn around and get a high price for it," he said, or "you could end up reducing it a lot because the local market will only pay so much."
Some artists price their work based on the amount of time and supplies used, said local painter Richard Bednar.
"I know some that look at it from a business standpoint because that's the only way they can keep it straight in their head and make sense of it," he said.
Stanford University law professor Mark Lemley called Sprigman and Buccafusco’s experiment “very important.”
“Much of intellectual property law is based on the assumption that people are rational actors who will license or sell their rights to others when it makes sense to do so,” he said. “If, as Buccafusco and Sprigman show, that is systematically wrong, we need to rethink the rights we give to creators, lest they hold up reuse and creation by others.”
Buccafusco said he hopes law professionals will ask questions about creative and intellectual property rights.
“We’re going to be negotiating about a lot of this stuff in the next decade,” he warned, recalling the lawsuits spurred by Internet database Google Books in 2005.
"I think we can expect more litigation along those lines as companies look for more opportunities to make content available online," he said.
Negotiations and making money aren't what drives some artists, Bednar said. He paints for fun on weekends.
"If I had to make a living out of this, I think I'd drive myself crazy," the career architect said, "and I wouldn't enjoy it at all."