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8 replies on “How User-Friendly Are Museum Image Rights?”

  1. Copyright stays with the creator of a work for 70 years after her/his death. Then it’s in the public domain; it’s that simple. Museums claiming “copyright” for two-dimensional pictures of two-dimensional works of art after the 70-year limit are sandbagging you. They have no such legal claim in the USA. According to a 2008 court decision, a 2-d photo of a 2-d work is not copyrightable in itself, because its only purpose is to accurately reproduce the original; there’s no creative input that could fall under copyright protection.

    1. Mr. Frank has it right… almost. There’s also a “90 years after publication” rule which applies to some works (generally not “unique” works like paintings), but I’ve never been able to quite figure that one out.

  2. Actual facts on copyright laws; U.S. legislative codes included:

    Actual facts on copyright laws: List of countries’ copyright lengths:

    Full Google search on copyright lengths for those seriously interested in actual laws:

    If people would just take the time to cite the creator/copyright holder’s name with the artwork they’re referencing, wouldn’t that be enough?

  3. If the user is placing the image into a “new interpretive context” i.e. an academic book, article, or presentation this is grounds for a fair use claim, meaning no copyright fees should be paid at all. See CAA fair use guidelines

  4. Fascinating piece of work by Andrea Wallace.

    Michelle Greet’s assessment below surprises me, but then again I am not a lawyer or even particularly knowledgeable about copyright. The decision in favour of Associated Press against Shephard Fairey, over his fairly significant transformation and interpretative context of that Obama photo suggests that academic institutions perhaps should be a bit less convinced that publishing in their journals, books etc shreds the copyright.

  5. As Michele Greet recently commented, in the United States, users of copyrighted materials have more options. Here, people using images of works (even if the works are from collections in other countries) need not always be limited by museum policies. U.S. copyright law includes the doctrine of fair use, which allows the use of copyrighted materials without securing permission under certain circumstances. For example, most scholarly publications can reproduce images of works of art relying on the doctrine of fair use, even online, as can most museum catalogues
    and educational materials. Artists who appropriate or remix images may do so under the doctrine of fair use if the use is transformative. They need not ask a museum’s permission for their
    transformative uses. For a comprehensive explanation on the principles and
    limitations of fair use in the visual arts, see the College Art Association’s Code of Best
    Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts at

  6. Comments are missing the point – sure copyright law seems straightforward, but then there is potentially a lot to be gained/lost through licensing digital surrogates of works of art, and some fun court cases to go along with it that are called up or ignored – just ask Bridgeman, Getty, etc. Not to mention TPMs and differences in national copyright law that are fun little rabbit holes when you want to share across borders. That’s what really makes this a great project.

  7. I’ve ran into a similar situation but with a twist. I take photographs in museums and choose art in the public domain, but I transform my photographs into 3D models.

    Here are links to my own personal experience regarding the capricious claims asserted in the name of “copyright:”

    Granted, museums and institutions are obligated to protect the copyright of artwork from living or recently deceased artists, but it is a stretch to claim a copyright on far older works of art.

    I’ve had discussions with museum employees about how this guides their photography policies for visitors too. The basic fear many institutions have is a loss of control over the image of the art they display. Another is a fear of the loss of much-needed income if visitors sell their photos of art from museums.

    Finally, a couple of interesting videos:

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