Govan Kills Zombie Copyrights

LACMA’s website has begun releasing publication-quality digital images of out-of-copyright works in its permanent collection. It appears to be the first major museum to do this, and that’s big news. It may herald the end of “zombie copyrights.”

A zombie copyright is one asserted over a creator’s long-dead body. In the case of a museum, it refers to the practice of claiming a de facto copyright to an older artwork by way of documentary photographs. At left is LACMA’s Easter Island Moai Kavakava (skeletal ancestor figure, c. 1800). It was created in a culture that never knew copyright. Even if it had been copyrighted, the artist has been dead a couple hundred years. It would be public domain by now.

Nonetheless LACMA, via “Museum Associates,” was claiming a 2008 copyright to this image. They owned the photograph you see here, professionally lighted against a tasteful cyclorama. A lot of effort and skill went into that photo. That granted, the attraction is the art of the long-dead Easter Island carver, not the 21st-century photographer.

You could snap a cell phone photo of the Moai Kavakava in LACMA’s galleries. The result wouldn’t be anything like this and would be suitable only for the crudest e-mail or art blog usage (this one, sometimes). In this second-hand way, 21st-century museums retain control over the reproduction of 19th-century and earlier objects in their collections.

The photographer of a 3D work at least has scope for creative interpretation though lighting and backdrop. Not so with 2D works. Claiming copyright to a documentary copy of a painting, drawing, print, or photograph is like Sherrie Levine claiming copyright to Walker Evans. But museums do it all the time. As far as the Louvre is concerned, the Mona Lisa is copyrighted.

Carol Vogel, in The New York Times, asked LACMA’s Michael Govan whether the new policy means that people could make “posters or potholders” from LACMA’s high-res images, cutting into gift shop profits.

“It’s negligible in the long run,” Govan replied. “My view is that it’s better to get the images out there so people will want to come and see the real thing.”

He’s absolutely right. And in case you wonder how the LACMA policy differs from the recently launched Google Art Project, which has gotten a zillion times more attention, check out the Google site’s FAQ:

Are the images on the Art Project site copyright protected?
Yes. The high resolution imagery of artworks featured on the art project site are owned by the museums, and these images are protected by copyright laws around the world. The Street View imagery is owned by Google. All of the imagery on this site is provided for the sole purpose of enabling you to use and enjoy the benefit of the art project site, in the manner permitted by Google’s Terms of Service

Why hasn’t every museum director taken LACMA’s stand? There are three main worries, all kind of silly. The two Vogel and Govan mentioned are:

(a) It will cut into licensing revenue.

(b) People will look at the high-res images and not go to the museum.

Item (a) ignores the impulse purchase factor. People who buy a tchotchke in a museum gift shop do so because they can see it and hold it in their hands. They did not go to the museum planning to buy a Marie Cassatt coffee mug; they bought it because someone else conceived the idea and executed it for them, and the museum gift shop decided to display it.

Were copyrights a cash cow for museums, that would be one thing. The reality is that copyright fees are as trivial to museum bottom lines as NPR is to the U.S. budget. I suspect that the museum employees handling copyright permissions rarely take in enough to pay their own salaries.

Idea (b) is even less credible. The screens on our desktops, laptops, pads, and phones are tiny, relatively speaking. The web is a “pull” experience, where you get what you search for. Museums are “push” experiences, curated by actual curators.

Okay, there might be Virtual Reality Pods in the Year 2525 rendering museums obsolete. Why should that influence museum policy now? Do you really believe it’s going to make a difference?

A lesser concern is—

(c) The museum would not be able to vet reproductions, leading to an avalanche of “tasteless” junk that would dishonor the dead artist.

A tour of museum gift shops will quickly disabuse you of this hypothesis. There’s a lot of arguably tasteless stuff right now. In any case, taste is relative. Would Edvard Munch like the Wes Craven Scream franchise, or hate it, or approve it only on the condition of getting X percent of the gross? This is an unanswerable question. Copyright law was never intended to answer it.

The purpose of copyright law is to allow living artists to make a living. Copyright remains important with musicians, writers, TV producers, and filmmakers (it’s your guess whether that will amount to a hill of beans in this crazy digital singularity).

Do any of today’s visual artists make a living selling copies? Um, Shepard Fairey, maybe? Otherwise, I don’t think so. The art market erects a Chinese wall between owning a print-out of Gilbert & George’s Planed (left, a digital file offered for free on the web in 2007) and an editioned G&G print sold through galleries. There’s not the same distinction between having an iTunes Dr. Dre track and a pirated copy. The art buyer expects/fantasizes about one day reselling at a profit, or donating the piece to a prestigious museum. Not so the buyer of a Jonathan Franzen eBook.

In any case, we’re talking about dead artists here. Zero percent of gift shop revenues go to Vermeer. It makes sense to reason as LACMA has, that providing high-quality digital files of out-of-copyright works is one of the responsibilities of stewardship.