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Two Met images now available for free scholarly use: (left) Johannes Vermeer, “Study of a Young Woman” (c. 1665–67), oil on canvas, 17 1/2 x 15 3/4 in (44.5 x 40 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, in memory of Theodore Rousseau, Jr., 1979 (1979.396.1); (right) Head of the god Amun (c. 1336–1327 BCE), Egyptian, New Kingdom, Post-Amarna Period, granodiorite, 44 cm (17 5/16 in) x 38.2 (15 1/16 in) x 41.5 (16 5/16 in), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1907 (07.228.34) (both images © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Late last Friday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it has made 400,000 images of artworks in its collection available for free download — but the move comes with a major caveat: the images are only intended for noncommercial, scholarly use.

The new initiative, titled Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC), provides easy access to high-resolution images of hundreds of thousands of pieces in the Met’s collection that are believed to be in the public domain and free of copyright restrictions. Available files now have a small OASC marking underneath the image on its online collection page, as well as a download arrow. New images will be added “on a regular basis,” according to the press release.

But unlike the Getty Museum’s big image release last summer or the Wellcome Library’s earlier this year, both of which allow for commercial use, the Met images are meant for only scholarly use. The museum defines this as “scholarly publication in all media,” including:

All school and academic work … , conference proceedings, journal articles, essays in Festschrifts, museum exhibition catalogues, non-commercially produced textbooks and educational materials, books published by university presses or the academic/scholarly imprint of commercial publishers, self-published books, and documentary films.

That designation omits a wide swath of people, namely artists, writers, filmmakers, and any one else working commercially (e.g. this blogazine; I had to obtain special permission to use images for this post). And the exception is particularly frustrating given the copyright-free nature of the work in question — we’re not talking about the thornier questions that come with pictures of copyrighted contemporary art. The Met’s image release is a welcome and vital move towards encouraging fair use, but it’s more like a cautious tread than a full step.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

13 replies on “Metropolitan Museum of Art Releases 400,000 Images, with Restriction”

    1. They aren’t talking about the images/photographs being in the public domain. They’re talking about the artworks themselves being in the public domain. The images are owned by the Met–they took them, they hold the copyright. You can go and take your own picture of the artwork in the museum and use it anywhere you want.

      1. That’s true for images of 3D works. There are lots variables and artistic decisions made when photographing 3D art. But it’s generally accepted that photos of 2D works are different. If an image seeks to faithfully reproduce a 2D work of art, it does not have a separate copyright.

      2. Actually Elizabeth, institutions don’t have copyright on reproductions of public domain work, though as Amy correctly pointed out, many institutions behave as if they do. The precedent is Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp.

        There’s a lot of debate around the issue, but essentially if we take the institutional position, the public domain simply ceases to exist.

        1. I wasn’t referring to the issue of rights and reproductions in general, but these specific images. I believe that reproductions of public art should be made available and at the cost of the institution responsible for their stewardship. Nowhere on their website does the Met suggest these are “slavish reproductions” or “exact copies” (or even reproductions at all) as was argued in Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. And these would not be the images you receive if you requested a reproduction. Although I haven’t look through all their OASC images and knowing that the Met does nothing without legal oversight, I’m sure that they’ve selected images that sufficiently meet the “originality” argument. For example, the Egyptian head the the author has used is on a mount that was commissioned and owned by the museum. The few paintings I saw also look like they may have been taken before restoration, in which case the image may not be an exact copy of the painting in its current state (or, as the museum might argue,of the image which belongs in the public domain). But restored objects vs. actual objects is a different debate altogether.

          1. It does not matter whether the Met calls them a “slavish reproduction” or “exact copy.” That is a legal determination. A photograph of a work is considered a reproduction under US copyright law.

            Here is an example of one of the Met’s OASC images: an 1887 self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh, which is unquestionably out of copyright. The photograph is just of the painting: there is no reuse, adaptation, derivation, etc. Under Bridgeman (which is admittedly not binding president all over the country, thought it is in New York), it is hard to argue this is an original work.

          2. This looks like an image that was taken before a conservation treatment–It’s unstretched with the tacking margins removed. I agree the image is in the public domain, but it’s use in this context is not. I’m not saying for sure this is what they’re doing, just that it’s a possibility

          3. If the photograph is in the public domain, it is in the public domain. This is an all or nothing situation: either the Met has copyright on that image, or it does not. Also, I have not heard of any case that determined that conservation treatments of a work created new copyright.

          4. The question is whether this photograph is in fact in the public domain. The image depicted by the portrait certainly is and if it was just a photograph of the portrait the court ruling says yes. But is this particular photograph public domain? Conservation certainly doesn’t create a new copyright on the object, but this photograph doesn’t just portray the public domain image (the actual portrait)–there is intentional information included by the photographer specifically about the condition. Does that make it an original composition and not a reproduction? I don’t know.

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