Basically, Intellectual Property Rights Are Complicated

In this digitized, globalized, information-guzzling age, people have unintentionally adopted a quirky new mindset that goes something like: “Ooh, pretty image. I want that now.”

However, it turns out that, like a lot of things, there are rules. As information becomes more and more accessible, people have grown accustomed to getting what they want when they want it, and so, understanding proper usage rules has become more critical in the world of online images and data management.

When we browse an online collection, we typically want to see large, beautiful, hi-resolution images of exactly what we’re looking for. Once we find them, oftentimes we want to keep or use them for our own projects. While museums would love to provide this kind of imagery for free, there are a lot of risks associated in doing so. Museums and data managers are currently contesting why they can or cannot share these larger images with the wider public, which has made for interesting debate. Several institutions, such as The Met and LACMA, are some of the big names pushing at the edges of what is, or should be, acceptable to share.

Previously, many images that belonged to outside rights holders, meaning not fully owned by an institution, could only be displayed as a thumbnail so as to minimize and control use. This is neither conducive for the viewing public, nor to scholars doing research. So why are images restricted in the first place? There are a few factors.

One of the most common reasons why an image isn’t fully available is simply that the museum may not hold the reproduction rights to the object, thus the images created from it. Rights holders can specify myriad rules as to how their object can or cannot be used, and if an institution doesn’t comply they risk getting sued. Considering many institutions are already constrained by tight budgets, this poses a significant threat.

Another concern museums have for their content is a loss of image control. In making images more freely available, in higher resolutions, they run the risk of these images being used under less-than-respectable circumstances. However, on the heels of this concern is the question of: does that matter? What makes something respectable to one person but not to another?

A third major concern that limits wider, freer image usage policies comes down to cost. In order to provide these large, beautiful images it takes money. There are costs involved in shooting the image, storing the image, sharing the image. How do museums recoup these costs when they share large images freely? Should museums charge for some images and not others? These are all questions actively being asked amongst data and rights and reproductions managers. Considering that this kind of wide-spread access, and use of this medium is also a relatively new phenomenon, there aren’t yet solid answers.

For now, many institutions have taken to clearly identifying images in their collections that are within the public domain and those that are not. Some of the better online collections provide links to FAQ’s that go into further detail as to what constitutes ‘public domain’ and what that means for proper usage. For some of these institutions’, whose images are under rights restrictions, there are oftentimes links to contact information for the individuals who own or manage these rights.

In the coming years, we will surely see more development, and debate, regarding online access rights and usage rules. Museums have traditionally been places where information, history, and art are shared with the public. As our technologies grow and innovate, there are now excellent opportunities to reach even more of our global communities online with digital collections. We just need to make sure there is some way institutions can continue to support both of these endeavors feasibly.

Jenny Keller, Graduate Student, Museum Science & Management, Curatorial Track

University of Tulsa, April, 2017

Image by Christopher Dombres via Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Hannah Johnson says:

    I am personally guilty of wanting a high res image and when I can’t get it I toss my head in frustration. Perhaps if images source and licensing was taught in secondary schools people might have a better idea of why they can’t have access to some images. Then again I think as stuff is put online each year, pretty soon everything will be accessible anyway, in one form or another. I thought your lecture and blog post were very clear and succinct with the information. It is an interesting subject and very pertinent to museum and gallery institutions. And the image you added is just perfect. Makes me laugh every time 🙂
    Good job!


    1. Jenny Keller says:

      Thanks, Hannah!


  2. Hailey Helmerich says:

    This is a very well written essay, Jenny. I wish you could have attached your presentation as well because I loved it— perfectly cheeky while still shedding light on a very serious topic. Copyright laws seem like a very tricky area, for museums in particular. We are accustomed to plucking images and reposting them at our leisure though several social media sites (Facebook, pinterest, etc.) and while it is necessary for museums to stay current with the times there are very real costs for museums to provide these images. Not only financially, but morally and ethically as well! I do think it’s helpful for online collections to make note of when an image is in the public domain or not, this prevents users from being naive when using certain images that may still be under copyright.
    Hailey Helmerich


  3. Alex London says:

    What a unique predicament, explained in your essay Jenny. Within the last fifteen years, the accessibility granted by the internet has completely changed copyright laws and what is now deemed acceptable to use. Sometimes it seems that convenience overrides legality. That is to say, a user can so simply hit “copy” on an image that they may not feel they are doing anything wrong at all, especially if they justify for their own personal use.

    I think one of the problems may in fact be accessibility. If a website forces users to log-in for a paid service that allows them access to certain images or media, the user may scoff at the price and inevitably find the same content online for free. Look at the cable industry for example, many individuals simply got sick of paying for a product they either rarely used or could access for free via the internet, as long as their was a way to access the content without charge; multiple users went had and took advantage of it, regardless of the legal consequences.

    Museums are unique because much of their copyright material is not as available elsewhere, but they currently lack infrastructure and logistics that protects against widespread piracy. Hopefully a stricter set of guidelines can be established, like Jenny mentions in her piece, because without a clear set of copyright rules, users will still find ways to take free content, regardless of morality or legality.


  4. molly noah says:

    Jenny, thank you for this article! After touring the Gilcrease Museum’s photography department and speaking to their staff, I can see the time, energy, and money that goes in to imaging the works in museum collections; imaging one work can potentially take all day! I agree with your first statement on a new mindset, visitors want what they want and they want it now! Museums are increasingly spreading their works on the internet, some are even inviting users to decontextualize the works onto t-shirts, mugs, and wallpaper. As museum professionals, I think we will continue to deal with these types of intellectual property rights issues in the future.


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