Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

The copyright revolution at US art museums

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Every once and a while an art museum (or two or three) does something so jaw-droppingly clever that in hindsight it seems like an obvious thing to do. So it is with the decision by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum and various entities at Yale University to make high-resolution images of art from their collections available for anyone to use, for any purpose, copyright-free. (At Yale special credit goes to the Yale Center for British Art, which got out ahead of the rest of the school’s similar efforts.)

As a result, if you want to make a t-shirt, a tote bag or a beach towel out of a YCBA Rubens, just download-and-go. If you’re a PhD student who wants to publish her dissertation about Constable as an e-book, here are scores of Constables you can download and e-publish free of charge.

My column for Modern Painters this month (not yet online, but on newsstands now) is about how and why LACMA, the YCBA and the Walters are tearing down the copyright wall — and what they could be enabling:

[W]hile the result of all this openness could ultimately be a special boon to marketers, advertisers and others who might want to use these images commercially, the more important reason for museums to tear down the copyright walls is to encourage scholarship and innvoative, image-rich educational materials. Any university student can now publish images from LACMA, Yale or Walters collections as part of her dissertation.

“It’s now free for schools everywhere to use our art in their classrooms,” Govan said. “I have a 16 year-old in New York schools and it’s a big issue. Teachers are always trying to find ways to get them images for nothing. Now they can.”

Here’s hoping we see innovative creative-folk swoop in and take advantage of the great artworks made available by LACMA, Yale, the Walters and others. Heck, if some art-smart craft brewer creates ‘A Philosopher’s Ale’ and puts LACMA’s Ribera on its label, I’ll buy it.

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  1. […] • Modern Art Notes on the “obvious” and ” jaw-droppingly clever” move by museums like the Walters and LACMA to make high-res images of art in their collections available  to all for use however they please, cop…. […]

  2. […] much.-If only everyone could be as enlightened as the Walters Art Museum, LACMA, and Yale–or Tyler Green. These institutions, as the blogger writes, are starting to “tear down the copyright […]

  3. Ken Hamma says:

    The museum community now has two decades of the experience of ‘being digital’ to look back on, and it is fairly clear that digital networks and online access to collections has not substantially changed image-licensing revenue – as was anticipated by many in the early 1990s. What has happened, but has received much less attention, is that the potential for fulfilling mission in research, education and general creativity has greatly increased because of those same developments – digital networks and online access. In the end all of the directors of Yale collections came down on the side of research, education and creativity. The greater risk was thought not to be loss of future revenue, but diminution of mission capacity by continuing to place obstacles like small images at low resolution with forms to fill and fees to pay where they might very easily be removed.

  4. H M Bascom says:

    It just seems vulgar to put a picture of a masterpiece painting on a coffee mug or on a tee shirt with a tacky slogan. Well, what ya gonna do, eh? I’m sure the velvet Elvis crowd will be hard at work designing bumper stickers.

  5. Tyler Green says:

    This is true. Someone commissioned a study on earned revenue from licensing (Mellon, perhaps?) and was able to show data to museums that demonstrated how small that revenue stream was. Several people I’ve talked to at other museums (that haven’t yet ‘switched’) cited that as being important in their ongoing internal processes.

  6. Marc B. says:

    Thanks to all participating museums and other institutions. This will boost the depiction of art at sites like Wikipedia.

  7. ChuckEye says:

    Odd, considering the museums do not own the copyrights to the artworks in the first place. They only own the physical artifact, not the intellectual property that is solely the possession of the creator.

  8. Babs says:

    Wow! I love it!

  9. […] The copyright revolution! The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum and various entities at Yale […]

  10. maxwell says:

    This makes no sense. Museums don’t hold copyright claim to any images created by artists who have been dead as long as Rubens, Ribera, etc… Nobody does. Many of these images have been on-line for a long time, and have been usable by anyone for any purpose as far as I know.

  11. Tyler Green says:

    That’s true, and my column in Modern Painters does not suggest otherwise.

    The column addresses how several art museums are relinquishing their rights to photographs they own of artworks (and, I believe, in some cases conservation images, etc.) in their collections, artworks for which the maker’s copyright has expired.

  12. John ffrench says:

    A point to clarify, at least in the case of Yale the policy is to make works that are already in the public domain freely available, it still respects the Rights related to works under copyright and only if they have signed agreements to distribute do they do so.

    By encouraging people to come to the source (the people who own the public domain object) they enable the public to see more accurate reproductions of works, and also offer vetted data about the object as well.


  13. ArtLover says:

    I think this is absolutely fantastic. I just went to the the Yale site and downloaded a 20 meg .tiff of one of my favorite images. Thank you participating museums.

    My only issue, which some have pointed to, is that the title of the article is a little misleading, as museums do not own the copyrights to artworks that are in the public domain. The revolution here is that museums–after stomping their feet for decades–are finally starting to realize this.

  14. Tyler Green says:

    I get 65 characters for headlines. There are 1,300 words in the magazine column. ;-)

  15. Jay Tell says:

    Try publishing an article in a small journal of art history. In order to include an image, the museum that owns the actual article requires a “license” fee plus some kind of royalty per printed issue it will appear in.

    It’s silly, because if the journal pays for the article at all, it sometimes doesn’t even cover the fee for a single image! Few enough people appreciate art, and attempting to squeeze them for cash is counter-productive.

  16. Tyler Green says:

    I think change is happening in this field. Led by the museums spotlighted here, at least one other (very) major American museum is expected to announce a fee-related policy change soon.

  17. Alison says:

    There’s a small misunderstanding by some posters about copyright. While it is true that most works in museums are public domain, the photos that the museums take of their collections are NOT. The images that they are (or were) trying to sell are the property of the museum and under copyright protection. This is why any museum goer can snap a photo of any work in the collections and not be arrested–because the photo you took is your property, not the museum’s. The fact that the museums are giving away their professional quality, high-res images is remarkable, and as a researcher I hope other museums follow suit.

  18. Lyn Warner says:

    What good news. I wonder if this appies only to artworks or does it extend to photos of embroideries in the museums’ collections too?

  19. ArtLover says:


    I partly disagree with you. Photographs of public domain paintings are NOT copyrightable. I invite you to read the very famous court case dealing with this issue:


  20. Claire says:

    ArtLover is entirely correct. A photograph of a public-domain painting is not copyrightable, in part because if it could be copyrighted, then the original would be in copyright violation with the photograph.

    On the other hand, a museum does not need to make items available for photography, and if they take the trouble to make a professional-quality photo, they can validly release it with a license agreement which limits its use. So if I write a book and ask the museum for a photo to include in the book, they may very well (and quite validly) ask for licensing fees. That has nothing to do with copyright; it’s a matter of contract law and access to the photo.

    If the museum also sells a coffee-table book with the same photo in it, and I buy it in the gift shop (so I have a legitimate copy of the photo), and if am willing to settle for the quality of image I can get by scanning the photo, they cannot go after me for copyright infringement when I put that image in my book.

    We published a book using museum images not long ago, and we were happy to pay the museums for images. But knowledge of this law helped us keep on production schedule, since we knew we could use our mockup scanned images if need be, and the museums were incredibly tardy in processing our orders. I think they just don’t have the office support to deal with what is only a tiny part of their business.

    So the decision to make these images freely available probably buys them more in goodwill than it would cost them in missed revenues. And as someone else mentioned, it encourages people to turn to them for the image, which becomes an opportunity to further the mission of the museum.

  21. Claire says:

    @Lyn Warner – photographs of three-dimensional objects is much trickier. The court case referred to photographs which were meant to be accurate representations of the (flat) artwork, with no original artistry added. One could argue that any photograph of a 3-dimensional piece of art by necessity has an original artistic element in the choice of vantage point. This would imply that a figurine of a statue would be in the public domain, but a photo of the same statue might not be, depending on whether the criterion of “original artistry” has been met. I suspect embroidery, while 3-D, is sufficiently flat that a photo _would_ be in the public domain, but there is no case law as of yet which definitively addresses the question.

  22. […] For years the NGA has lagged its peers in putting large, high-quality images of artwork in its collection online. (Instead, this.) No more: Today the National Gallery of Art launched NGA Images, which makes available 3,000-pixel-wide, high-resolution images of 20,000 artworks. These images are free to use for any purpose, commercial or non-commercial. In making available copyright-free images, the NGA joins LACMA, the Walters and the Yale Center for … […]

  23. […] images of its art in the public domain. (I wrote about the issue in my Modern Painters column back in September, 2011. Download the entire issue here. My piece is on pages […]

  24. […] (I wrote about this then-emerging issue in my Modern Painters column back in 2011.) […]

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