Bad Arguments Against "Droit de Suite"

When I teach critical thinking and argumentation, I often tell students that nothing bothers philosophers more than bad arguments in support of positions they agree with. Well, bad arguments against positions one cautiously supports can also be pretty annoying. A couple of weeks ago I discussed droit de suite – a royalty that visual artists or their heirs receive when their work is resold at auction. Since then I’ve tried to learn more about droit de suite and I’ve come across a few persistent bad arguments against it.

1. Droit de suite benefits established, older artists, not the young and struggling artists who really need financial support.

Any policy will benefit some people more than others. That, in itself, is not a reason to be against a particular policy. This objection would only have force if we were choosing between droit de suite and some other policy that would in fact benefit younger artists. But so far I’ve heard nothing about a possible alternative.

2. Droit de suite is not a substitute for a proper retirement plan.

The folks at Fidelis Art Prints in Vancouver make this objection in an article on their website. They make some excellent points about the importance of pricing one’s art properly and about financial management for artists. And they’re right – droit de suite is definitely not a substitute for a proper retirement plan. Neither is winning the lottery. But it simply doesn’t follow that the Canadian government should resist efforts to institute droit de suite here.

3. Art collectors have a right to make a profit from their investments.

Art collectors are an important part of the art world. When collectors purchase works, they help support artists and galleries. Some collectors generously lend or donate their collections to museums where they can be viewed and enjoyed by everyone. Collectors most definitely should have the chance to reap a financial gain if they choose to sell. In countries were droit de suite is the law, the amount of money that goes to an artist when a work is resold is quite small – usually four to five percent of the resale price up to a certain maximum. No one is asking collectors to stop making a profit, only to make a somewhat smaller profit.

4. Why should droit de suite apply to artworks, but not to works of fine design?

Perhaps works of fine design should also be included in resale royalty schemes. I tend to think that there are important differences between artworks and design objects that would make droit de suite inappropriate for design objects. Yet whether I’m correct about this or not has little bearing on the main question: Would droit de suite be a good thing for Canadian artists and the Canadian art market, or not?

5. Droit de suite is difficult to administer and enforce.

Again, this is probably true. Yet many other jurisdictions have found a way to administer droit de suite. Canada might learn from their experiences. Also, the fact that a policy is difficult to enforce is not necessarily a reason to reject it. The administration and enforcement of child support payments by non-custodial parents can be extremely difficult; yet this is not given as a reason to change existing family law.

These five arguments against droit de suite are low-hanging fruit, so to speak. Most of them are “fallacies of relevance.” Even if the point they make is true, it is of little or no consequence for the issue at hand. I don’t mean to suggest that all arguments against the policy are bad. In fact, some of the arguments against it, such as those raised in an article by Jonathan Tepper, are very subtle and complex, and would require a lot more attention that I can give them here.

One final thought: Some of the more legally sophisticated arguments against droit de suite turn on the objection that it would be a mistake to treat artworks differently from other types of property. But it is worth noting that we do, in fact, already treat artworks differently, both as a matter of practice and in the law. For example, many countries have laws and regulations against exporting certain kinds of artworks, laws and regulations that do not apply to other kinds of property.

Posted in Art.