Public Domain Art in an Age of Easier Mechanical Reproducibility
From the article Public Domain Art in an Age of Easier Mechanical Reproducibility, published by Kenneth Hamma, Exec. Dir. for Digital Policy, J. Paul Getty Trust, in D-Lib Magazine.
Art museums and many other collecting institutions in this country hold a trove of public-domain works of art. These are works whose age precludes continued protection under copyright law. The works are the result of and evidence for human creativity over thousands of years, an activity museums celebrate by their very existence. For reasons that seem too frequently unexamined, many museums erect barriers that contribute to keeping quality images of public domain works out of the hands of the general public, of educators, and of the general milieu of creativity. In restricting access, art museums effectively take a stand against the creativity they otherwise celebrate. This conflict arises as a result of the widely accepted practice of asserting rights in the images that the museums make of the public domain works of art in their collections.This is, I should note, an opinion piece, as D-Lib Magazine makes clear. I'm particularly interested in the issue, however, because medieval manuscripts are treated as art objects and, therefore, supposedly not in the public domain. In fact, it's standard practice to obtain written permission to publish a transcription of a manuscript even when the transcription was made from a microfilm copy of the manuscript.
Indeed, it is not at all clear that the institutional claims of copyright to such works would survive a legal challenge. The judgment in a 1999 case, BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY, LTD. v. COREL CORP., brought in a U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, held that the marketing of photographic copies of two-dimensional public domain master artworks, without adding anything original, cannot constitute copyright infringement when the underlying work is in the public domain. By and large, museums have been holding their noses and hoping this ruling will neither be broadly noticed nor challenged . The fact that the ruling applies only to two-dimensional works of art likely provides little relief to those museums with a traditional but persistent pecking order that goes something like: paintings, drawings, everything else.
art | copyright | public domain