Created on Sunday, 21 September 2008 13:36
Denmark's BIAM Sued for Using Term 'Bank'
by Lyn X
, Our Voice Street News (Canada)
he Bank of International Art Money (BIAM
) is an internet-based,
artist-run project established by Danish artist Lars Kraemmer in
Copenhagen in 1998. Much like ATCs (artist trading cards), mail-art and
other forms of swapping projects that require a credit or barter
system, BIAM recognizes the intrinsic value in the art being produced,
and its intended purpose is to encourage artists from around the world
to issue "original Art Money bills" as a global alternative currency.
Participants are required to follow a set of guidelines concerning
measurements, format, identifying elements and acceptable media. Every
piece is issued an initial value of 200 Danish Kroner (around 27 Euro
or $34 USD) and increases in value by five Euro per year for 7 years.
BIAM has arts-friendly business partners who accept Art Money at 'face
value', and also has an international Host Registry where travelling
artists can pay for accommodation with their art money.
Well, on March 12, 2008 founder Lars Kraemmer was officially
charged by Danish police for using the word "bank" in this
well-established collaborative art project. Yes. You read that right.
The Danish Financial Advisory Board-an agency under the Ministry of
Economics and Business Affairs-initiated the charges after Kraemmer
ignored an initial citation issued (by DFAB) a couple years ago,
demanding that he stop using the word "bank" in BIAM. Kraemmer expects
to go to court at the end of 2008 and now faces anything from a fine to
four months in prison.
In what bizarre universe is it reasonable to issue restrictions on the use of the word "bank"? Will governments next tell us that we can't speak the Holy Name of Bank next?! I set out to find out why they would charge Kraemmer, and on what authority, because I can't fathom how anyone can be threatened with jail time for using the word 'bank'... it's just so... Orwellian!
I enlisted the help of a Danish student at the University of Alberta (who wishes to remain anonymous) and the story in a nutshell (slight editing for brevity) is this: "In Denmark there are laws in place regarding financial institutions, supposedly for the protection of the customer, so that you know that if you're dealing with a bank-a financial institute-you are completely guaranteed (i.e. everything is monitored and insured so that you cannot lose your money). Because of these very strict laws for this one particular type of business (which do not apply to other types of business), names including the word "bank" and referring to financial institutions are protected, and you cannot use the word "bank" if there is any chance that anyone might believe that the business is an actual financial institute. Using the work "bank" is not a crime in itself. There are a number of banks in Denmark, like everywhere else, that have nothing to do with finances: semen banks, blood banks etc. In 1998, the U.S. Image Bank was put on trial under the same law and found to be not guilty, since nobody could mistake it for a financial institute; the Image Bank thus still uses the name perfectly legally.
In this context, the Danish Financial Advisory Board emphasizes the following points as being the reason for not allowing BIAM to use the word "bank":
1) With BIAM, the word "Bank" stands alongside the word "Money" hence making it possible that people might misunderstand the name as referring to a financial institution;
2) The purpose of the business is to manage and register (with serial number) the production of Art Money as well as to store and sell the Art Money. Art Money can be used as a form of currency. Therefore these activities overlap with those of "banks" as financial institutions; and
3) The term "Internet Bank" has been used on BIAM's website. Based on all of this, DFAB believes that some people might be misled by BIAM's usage of "bank", and believe they are protected by the above laws if dealing with BIAM.
Kraemmer and his lawyer Palle JÃ¸rgensen counter DFAB's arguments with the following:
1)"Money" is used in the context "Art Money" which they do not believe that anyone would misunderstand;
2) BIAM does not give financial advice, give loans, provide 'bank accounts' or any of the other duties of traditional banks. Art Money cannot be exchanged for 'real' money; and
3) It is clear from the website that BIAM is an art project and not a financial institute."
Although our Danish volunteer admits that she did not misunderstand BIAM as a financial institution, she insists it's possible that 'someone' could be misled, if not the 'average person': "It is perfectly possible that someone somewhere might misunderstand it and so believe that the Art Money has the actual value of 200 kr. and is guaranteed that they can be exchanged back for 200 kr." BIAM clearly states the opposite on their website, but the DFAB opines that "people should know what they are dealing with without having to read through all of the text on the website." That is laughable. That's like me saying that I shouldn't have to pay compounded interest charges on a credit card, because I shouldn't be expected "to read through all of the text" in the contract!
I also disagree with the whole argument about "protections" and "guarantees"-ask any Argentinian who lost their entire life savings to big "financial institutions" back in 2001 how "protected" they were. Ask any homeowner in the U.S. who recently lost their home in the sub-prime mortgage debacle how "protected" they were. Banks are NOT government/taxpayer-owned-they are privately-owned, for-profit corporations that hardly "guarantee" anything to their customers. Using the weak excuse that the terms "bank" and "money" cannot co-exist unless you are a state-sanctioned financial institution is just plain territorial. DFAB's stated mission is "to create future oriented conditions for growth for citizens and companies in an increasingly globalized world." Sounds to me like these same profit-generating industries that extol free-market values and bemoan anti-competition regulations only do so as long as others stay off their turf. That they are given carte blanche by legislators to pursue criminal charges against an artist makes them all the more reprehensible.
Incidentally, there are many other 'alternative currency systems' that legally exist around the world, and not even as 'art projects'. Calgary (Alberta) has been operating a successful program for several years (see http://www.calgarydollars.ca
or search them on Wikipedia). Gerald Wheatley, Calgary Dollars' Director, tells us that although Canada enforces counterfeit requirements through size and design restrictions, there isn't a prohibition on the use of the word "bank" in Canada, citing that Kootenay Hours' - another alternative currency program in the Canadian province of British Columbia - prints "Kootenay Barter Bank" on their notes. There are also programs in Salt Spring Island (B.C.), Ithaca (New York), and several other cities and countries. After the financial fall of Argentina, the only way many people could survive was by starting their own currency systems. (A sidebar on Ithaca: despite being one of the first programs and arguably one of the most successful, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service has formally prohibited complementary currency in the U.S. so those systems are now in a precarious position. How convenient.)
So, is Kraemmer trying to 'generate a storm in a glass of water' (as they say in Denmark), as our Danish volunteer suspects? Why not just ditch the name "bank" from the project and be over and done with it? Well, for starters, I've been receiving mail from BIAM for a couple years now and have never had the impression that they were into those kinds of games; they are an extremely successful art project that doesn't need to resort to controversy to help them sell their ideas (no pun intended). Second, BIAM isn't remotely a new project -it takes several years of emotional and financial investment (usually entirely unpaid) into establishing an international art project on a scale such as BIAM - the Danish media wrote that there are now $80 million worth of Art Money in circulation. Expecting Lars Kraemmer or any other artist to change the name of a project of that magnitude, especially under DFAB's bizarre (and unproven) logic is simply unreasonable.
But perhaps most importantly, bank is a word-not a trademark, not a logo-a word, whether used as an adjective or a noun. It's a word we use every day, in a variety of contexts, and it's unreasonable that a Financial Board in any democratic society would not only claim exclusivity over the term (regardless of bizarre logic), but abuse their power to criminally charge (and possibly jail) anyone for using it outside of their unconvincing boundaries. From my perspective this is just another fine example of corporate muscle-flexing, placing limitations on free speech and freedom of expression.
This article (sightly edited) first appeared in the August-October 2008 issue of Our Voice, an active citizenship project of the Edmonton Small Press Association (ESPA), which is an independent media & activist-arts collective in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Our Voice is a 'street newspaper' which is produced by ESPA volunteers and sold by low-income and homeless people as a job-skills and income supplement program. Lyn X is ESPA's Artistic Director & Programmer, who dreams of a better world that values people over profits, and thus she abhors capitalist 'financial institutions' and celebrates Fair Trade. For more info about ESPA or Our Voice visit http://www.edmontonsmallpress.org or join them on facebook. Learn more about street newspapers at http://www.street-papers.org.