Thursday, May 1, 2008

Leave nothing but footprints

If a painting is old enough, then copyright no longer applies to the painting. However, museums still want to control (meaning “profit from”) reproductions of their paintings, and in particular they want to sell copies of photographs of the paintings to schools and publishers and prevent other people from putting those photographs on umbrellas and coffee mugs. They used to rely on copyright law, but this little corner of copyright law changed in 1999 when a district court decision in Bridgeman v. Corel said that photographs of paintings don’t have enough originality to qualify for their own copyrights, at least when the photographs are specifically trying to be perfect reproductions of the original image. Uh oh, said the museums. Woot, said everyone else. I am in ur museum, slavishly repurrducing ur priceless artworks, said photography cat.

Rebecca Tushnet has posted a transcript of the fascinating “Who Owns This Image? Art, Access, and the Public Domain after Bridgeman v. Corel” panel in New York on Tuesday, as well as a link to a very relevant Mellon Foundation study: Reproduction charging models & rights policy for digital images in American art museums. If you’re a fan of copyright law, or you have experience with the museums and teaching art history side of things, this is fun reading.

I’ve been surprised to see museums becoming more amenable to consumer photography over the past 10 years, though some such as the DeCordova are still very opposed. Tripods are still banned from most museums, but image-stabilizing lenses and cameras aren’t. Perhaps the museums realize that this is not a battle they can win on the access front while still remaining open to the public. Unless they can convince people that photography inside a museum is as much a security threat as photography on a train.

1 comment:

Michael said...

In a related vein, the Art Institute of Chicago libraries have an exhibition going right now called Copyright Law: Publishing Art and the Public Domain, highlighting some of the wonderful vagaries of US copyright law (past and present).