A basic Google search for a famous piece of artwork, such as van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” will almost always turn up dozens of images of the piece–often from poster retailers offering buyers a print of the artwork for $15. Occasionally, you might find an image of the artwork on a website hosted by the museum that owns it. But seldom would the museum make the image downloadable. Even more unusual is finding a high-resolution downloadable image–from any source. But all of that might be changing.

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is in the process of uploading high-resolution images of all of its artwork to its website, making it available to the public as a free download.  The images are even available for commercial use, although the museum asks that such user pay a small fee in exchange for an even better image. Not only that, the museum is now allowing visitors to take their own pictures of the artwork while visiting the museum.

In other words, no longer do you have to buy the overpriced calendar or coffee mug exhibiting your favorite piece of artwork from the museum gift shop. Now, you can make your own.

The museum’s rationale for this change is that given the choice, and due to the prevalence of images of these pieces online anyway, it is preferable that reproductions be made based on high-quality images of the artwork, rather than the low-resolution images most widely available. Further justifying this is the idea that artwork belongs to everyone: it is there for public enjoyment, so why not allow members of the public to use, reproduce, and enjoy the artwork as each desires?

So how is the museum able to do this given modern copyright laws? Many museums, particularly modern ones, don’t own the copyright to most of the pieces in their collections. They own the physical artwork, yes, but not the copyright to it, which still belongs to the artist (or his or her estate). See § 202 of the 1976 Copyright Act [PDF]. Many museums do offer an online catalog of their works, but only post thumbnail images so as not to violate copyright law. (A 2002 9th Circuit case held that thumbnail images were a fair use of the original copyright.)

Copyright concerns are the reason that many museums stringently police their visitors’ taking of photography. It also explains why only some reproductions of artwork are available for sale in museum gift shops; for many pieces, the museum must get permission from the copyright owner to reproduce it, and some artists are more reluctant than others.

Fortunately for the Rijksmuseum, many of its artworks were created before modern copyright law, thus eliminating many of these concerns. But what is interesting about what the Rijksmuseum is doing is that its site, called Rijks Studio, allows users to manipulate the images to their personal tastes. In other words, users are able to create “derivative works,” based on the original. This would clearly be a problem under U.S. copyright law, unless the derivative work fell within the parameters of fair use.

The general viewpoint among museums is that open access to artwork is the future of the art world, but not every museum is in a position to offer it quite as easily as the Rijksmuseum. For example, the Smithsonian has also digitized many of its, but the images it posts online remain low-resolution only. Some museums have real copyright concerns to contend with; others are concerned about loss of revenue and the effect open access will have on the market for forgeries.

What do you think? Is the Rijksmuseum correct that since art is for everyone, open access will create more of an appreciation for it? Or will making these images available for download for both personal and commercial use curtail the desire to see the originals, or cut into a museum’s revenue sources? Should we be concerned about what this will do to the demand for museums? And does this create an expectation in art viewers that they have a right to such images, when under U.S. copyright law, at least, they absolutely do not?

–Avery VanPelt

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4 Responses to Open Access to Artwork

  1. Zachary Loney says:

    As a follow-up, the idea of opening the access to artwork was reinforced by the Getty’s launch of its Open Content Program. The Getty supports the idea that “it is now the mark—and social responsibility—of world-class institutions to develop and share free cultural and educational resources.”

  2. Shannon Han says:

    Very interesting post Avery! As far as public domain works are concerned, I have to applaud the museum for making the works so freely available. It seems that the lack of copyright protection should encourage such a broad distribution. Additionally, it seems that the public has the right to create derivative works from those pieces, however they please. Museums may be encouraged to create this access as a means of promoting themselves and the pieces they house. For people who enjoy the less celebrated works in a museum, I would be exciting to have an easy method for discovering new works that they would never have known existed without visiting (and without the big name works, someone might have no inclination to visit in the first place).

  3. Emily Green says:

    Really interesting stuff. Kind of going along with John’s comment, I do think that the use of a digital copy of a piece of art and the act of going to see a piece of art in a museum serve two very different purposes. In my mind, at least, seeing a high resolution image of Van Gogh’s Starry Night would never compare to seeing it in person from varying angles. Thus, I wouldn’t think museum admittance would be affected negatively.

    So it seems to me that the more interesting issue is the question of what people will do with the artwork. Could they have a huge print made and hung in their living room? Or will they print their own mugs? And does this detract from the piece of art? I would argue no, though it probably detracts from profits a museum might make by selling those items (profit that might go towards proliferating more art?). I do think it’s a very interesting approach! Particularly since museums are the ones voluntarily taking it.

  4. John Lomascolo says:

    First, I really don’t think this will have any negative effect on museums. I think most of the people that go to museums are art lovers, and the experience of seeing the real, physical, original versions of these masterpieces in person will never be replaced by simply seeing them online. And although I do agree that art should be as available as possible, and that it would be better for people to see the real, original versions as opposed to some lower quality versions on posters or what not, I do not think the originals should just be freely accessible to whoever. It reminds me somewhat of the whole Napster issue, but instead of songs being available for free, it’s artwork. Artists try to earn a living off of their artwork, and even though many of the artists for a number of the works that will be made available initially might have passed away, I don’t see other artists really liking this idea very much. If it spreads, the already minimal earnings that most artists make may get even smaller.