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As art collectors start eyeing GIFs, it’s time to ask: Can you ‘own’ digital art?

Auctions are built on drama. The thrilling scent of possibility hangs in the room. Sleek, precisely manicured men and women confidently throw up paddles, wagering thick stacks of cash on beautiful objects. A fast-talking, rambunctious auctioneer racks up millions in sales with every rapid-fire bidding war. 

Of course, the Internet has changed this. Thanks to eBay, you can now bid on something from the comfort of your bed, pantsless, eating Doritos. (It’s the American dream, really.)

But boutique auction Phillips house is trying something that ties the cutting-edge digital art world to the glamour and deep pockets of real-life gallery-based art auctions. Working with Tumblr, Phillips is hosting Paddles On, an art auction that blends Internet culture with more old-school auctioning techniques. paddles on

They’re looking for the best digital pieces on Tumblr — the coolest GIFs, the most arresting net art — and once they decide what makes the cut, the art will be displayed at Phillips Gallery on Park Avenue in New York City. And it will also be sold. 

Paddles On accepted submissions of all kinds, including software. The selected art will be auctioned off digitally, but select pieces will also be displayed in a special show at the gallery’s physical space in October. Artists will receive 80 percent of the proceeds, and the remaining 20 percent will be donated to Rhizome, a non-profit that supports contemporary technology art. 

Since the auction isn’t until October 10, it remains to be seen how many art collectors will bite. People who pay for art do it for a number of reasons, but there is sometimes an underlying impulse of ostentatiousness, the desire to show off what now belongs to you, among high bidders. Since this art is digital, it makes the idea of ownership complicated. 

Because really… who owns a GIF? And how?

Sites like Giphy and Tumblr hosts untold numbers of looping clips, ranging from visually beautiful pieces made specifically for the format to goofy snippets of popular TV shows. GIFs have (pun intended) embedded themselves in digital culture to a remarkable extent — Jesse Shapins, the founder of interactive storytelling service Zeega, refers to them as “cultural touchstones.” Since so many people share them around, and many contain snippets of material from television or film, it’s easy to get confused about the concept of ownership. But GIFs fall under the same copyright laws that other content does — “the same established rules of photography cover that of digital art,” explains Alex Chung, one of the co-founders of Giphy. 

“The demand for intangible art pieces is likely to continue growing.”

“They all fall under copyright law, just physical art is harder to replicated versus photography or digital art,” Chung says. “Also digital art can be encrypted which then gives it even more protection under DMCA.  This has been a big issue for the RIAA and the media studios like Warner Bros. – who own like 80 percent of all the movies – which gives them special rights over physical mediums which can’t be encrypted.” 


So GIFs are just as protected as photography, though, just like photos, people and organizations often repost them online without attribution or payment. Especially when it comes to GIFs that show snippets from pop culture, this free-style sharing is unlikely to change unless media studios like Warner Bros. find a way to crackdown (which would spell doom for sites like Howaboutwe, and generally make the Internet a worse place). But when it comes to GIFs that contain original artwork,  there is a movement to entice art fans to pay for the digital products.


GIF Market was created by digital artist Kim Asendorf in 2011 specifically for this reason. The site’s fluctuating prices can provide a (small) positive ROI for collectors, as artist Anthony Antonellis explains. “The site adjusts the prices based on some algorithm of growth,” he says. “My original purchase of a few cents is now valued at 13.41 Euros.” 


Antonellis likes GIFs so much he implanted an RFID chip into his hand with a GIF he created on it. To say he is deeply involved with the digital art community is putting it lightly. He points out a number of different projects that attempt to sell digital art that pre-date Paddles On, including Art.Teleportacia, a website Olia Lialina created in 1998 that purports to be the “the first real net art gallery.” Art.Teleportacia compiles listings to help facilitate the sale of digital art. In Lialina’s own words, it “[challenges] the traditional art selling system and the institutionalized establishment of curators and directors.” 


Art.Teleportacia recently promoted the Paddles On project to its readers, but the net art market is far broader than this one auction. In addition to Art.Teleportacia and GIF Market, there are many different outlets attempting to sell digital creations. Rhizome, the non-profit involved with Paddles On, had its executive director Lauren Cornell sell GIFs at the 2011 Armory Show in New York. Hrag Vartanian interviewed her about the project. 

In 2013, Art F City also sold GIFs at an art event, offering a limited-edition sapphire crystal USB drive with digital art from eleven different artists at the New Art Dealer Alliance (NADA) Fair. And an upcoming show called Net Worth created by artist Daniel Temkin will sell forgeries of net art created by other artists and sold via bit coins, in an effort to examine and expand the commercial viability of digital art “by fostering its shadow market” according to the event invitation. It’s an interesting way to conceptualize the difference between the physical art market and the digital one. 

Even though GIFs that consist of snippets from pop culture will likely continue to float around the Internet as freely used digital pieces, when it comes to the art world, an entire market is emerging. With some of the most innovative, creative artists choosing digital mediums, demand for intangible art pieces is likely to continue growing. 

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