Compulsive Looking and (Lack of) Copyrights At Museums

Museums are somewhat infamous for trying to stop people taking pictures of famous paintings on display. Some museums forbid flash photography with the argument that thousands of flashes would inevitably damage works that are often carefully hung with special lighting and protective surfaces. But, really, stopping me taking a snap of a modern steel sculpture? What’s going on there?
According to Carolina A. Miranda at ARTnews what’s going on may be that the museum doesn’t hold the copyrights or permissions that would allow people to make copies. This isn’t such a big deal when people are taking holiday snaps for private or family display, but in the age of Instagram and Flickr when every cellphone image is instantly broadcast and then indexed and searchable it’s a potentially much bigger deal.

The very bigness of the deal may be compelling a change. Back in the day it was just one guy with a camera in hand; now it’s everyone with every cellphone and point-and-shoot. Trying to police all of them is both taxing on limited museum resources and ultimately futile anyway. So, according to Miranda, museums are loosening their policies and trying to become part of the social media conversations themselves, publishing Tumblrs and having their own Instagrams.

Enter copyright. Museums often restrict their open-access photography to their permanent collections, over which they tend to have complete control. But loaned and traveling exhibits, which can be the biggest draws, often come with copyright restrictions and photos published online – even if non-commercially – can be considered infringing derivative works. To combat this, museums need to work directly on these rights issues with the holders; for example, they can negotiate exemptions that permit non-commercial reproduction while agreeing to help rights-holders track down people who are trying to make money off the photos.


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