Google Art Project is Terrific! And Be Careful Not to Infringe The Copyrights!

Exit through the gift shop.

Richard Westall, "Sword of Damocles," [1812, via Wikimedia Commons,Ackland Museum, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States of America ]

At Vintage Printable we’re always on the lookout for new digital, public domain images for you to copy, print or download.  And so, we were excited to see the Google Art Project , which is “a collaboration between Google and 151 acclaimed partners across 40 countries. . .”

Bravo, Google. If any readers have not checked it out, it is yet another great time-eater.

We’re sad that, even with this miraculous project, we have to complain: which images are available for use, and which ones aren’t?

Per the FAQ, using the digital “slavish copies” of the public domain works may violate purported copyrights from the museums:

The high resolution imagery of artworks featured on the art project site are owned by the museums, and these images may be subject to copyright laws around the world. The Street View imagery is owned by Google [Swivelchair note: We’re ok with that]. 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 . The normal Google Terms of Service apply to your use of the entire site.

We have no idea what images are available for use on our site– and so, we perceive the use of images from Google Art Projects as sort of a “gotcha” situation — you don’t know if you’ll be violating someone’s purported rights until after you use the image. So, we regret, that we won’t be posting any of the images here.

Our complaint isn’t really about Google, we don’t think. We think it would be in Google’s interest to  selling adverts on pages displaying the images. No, we think the complaint is with the museums and other non-profit institutions that own the physical copies of the art.

While we sympathize with museums and educational institutions who are non-profits and have budget cuts, our view is this (from our ABOUT, DISCLAIMER, AND A PUBLIC DOMAIN MANIFESTO page):

. . . [A]s with any new technology that eliminates the middle man, there are vested interests in the old way of making money. There are some entities that would like to take really old, out of copyright two- dimensional works, take a photo (albeit, a professional photo), and then claim: “Gotcha. New copyright, pay me. ”

Our own view is that this is wrong: the whole point of copyright law is that it only lasts for a period of time, not forever.  If copyright lasted forever, then there would be no dissemination of new ideas, because everyone would be frozen afraid to be sued — among a zillion other reasons. Plus copyright rewards creativity — not work. Mere duplication shouldn’t count as creativity. If copyright rewarded the amount of work, then a high-throughput scanner could be an author. Copyright rewards the tangible embodiment of creativity — even if you only wake up and do that creative thing in a fog for one second and then fall asleep or watch cute kitten videos all day long, as some at château Swivelchair are wont to do. You can be brilliantly creative and hardly work at all. This is what many people strive for and copyright protects that.

Think: would DaVinci be thrilled with the British libraries and other places that claim: “Gotcha! All the world has enjoyed your work for millenia, but now that we paid to hire a really good photographer who knows how to light it to take a really good photo and so we get to own the rights again! ”

This is wrong on so many levels.

Institutions do have an argument: “We spent good money digitizing these — like a zillion dollars! Now we should control who gets to print these out or copy these digitally!”

Our answer: If taxpayer money paid for (a) the original acquisition of the object; (b) the scanning/photography, as well as museum overhead, then shouldn’t the otherwise public domain scan belong to the public?

Here’s another argument: It’s private funds, from rich people.

Our Answer: Then give back any tax deductions you take. If you claim that private money gives you the right to make profit on the things you buy with it then to me that indicates you are not an non-profit institution. Just pay the back taxes and we’ll call it square.  More than that, it’s usually private commingled with taxpayer money.

Google states “Users can explore a wide range of artworks at brushstroke level detail. . .” and perhaps this is why the museums consider the photos of public domain artworks to be copyrightable — they consider them 3d works and not 2d.* Tricky, museums. What about works on paper or works where the media does not have “brushstrokes?”

One of the leading US cases on this, as we understand it, involves the preparation of a CD ROM of photos of out-of-copyright museum paintings (Bridgman Art Library v Corell), where the court in New York held that it was not only not a copyright infringement for Corell to make and sell CDs of art work photos, but also that there was no copyright to begin with (because “slavish copies” of 2d art works are not independently copyrightable).  This case has caused the museum to spill their teacups, indubitably, among them the private “Museums Copyright Group” in the UK.   Their view (our emphasis):

“… following Bridgeman -v- Corel it is vital that the museum community are clear on where they stand in relation to photographic copyright. While museums will always need to protect themselves contractually, the Report and leading counsel’s opinion gives museums the confidence to continue releasing photographs of objects in their collections. This is extremely important news for the sector and will ensure that museums can continue to monitor reproduction quality, protect the integrity of the work, and not least to protect a vital source of income for many museums”.

Short version: Private gain, public costs.

Recall: public institutions get their collections from (a) war spoils (publicly funded); (b) private bequests and donations (tax-deductable); (c) taxpayer funded purchases; (d) taxpayer -sponsored art projects (like, WPA).

It’s even worse, in our opinion, because many public art repositories prohibit photographing the artworks yourself (in a non-damaging way). (And we tried**).  Combine that with the purported “copyright” on their own digital images, and voila: monopolizing public domain works that the public has paid for already. And so these public institutions don’t merely own the copyright of their own photos, they want to slurp the public domain image back into the toothpaste tube of creativity and pretend they are the original authors — so they can control all versions — essentially re-copyrighting it under their own ownership.

Our view: Ugh.

Aren’t public museums supposed to be for the public dissemination of knowledge? As stated by the British Museum Governance Policies and Principles (Part I — Aim of the British Museum, page 3):

The Aim of the British Museum (“the Museum”) is to hold for the benefit and education of humanity a collection representative of world cultures (“the Collection”), and ensure that the Collection is housed in safety, conserved, curated, researched and
exhibited. [FN:This statement represents a modern expression of the objectives of the Museum set out in the British Museum Act 1753].

If one goes back to the British Museum Act of 1753, the museum was created so that wealthy British personages could store their collections “for God and the Public.”  Privatizing art images doesn’t seem to fit with this, regardless of dancing on the head of the copyright pin.

But all of this is pretense. The problem is money:  Museums purportedly don’t have enough money.***

And the solution?  Expensive admissions and exits through the gift shops. In other words, in order to see the public treasures, you have to go through the museum control, rather than any other source. Museums want to monopolize the use of the public art works for rent-seeking, non-productive activities (a.k.a. paying museum administration and providing tax deductions for rich people).

Hence the sword of Damocles hanging over the use of images from Google Art Project.  Want to use an image? It has brushstrokes – so “gotcha.”

Our view as to what should happen:  Museums should encourage the public to take, use, and create with these digital images (and we’re talking about public domain works, not works currently in copyright). Why not have an Etsy store within the museum gift shops to permit the public to actually make money from these works? Maybe if the creative class could use the images without fear they could make their own jobs, make money, and then pay taxes, some of which would go back to the museum.

But nooo. Museum trustees don’t want the public to make money off the artworks they (the public) paid for.  Museums have a great opportunity here, by providing a creativity hub for business and jobs. They’re blowing it by requiring that we all exit through the gift shop to pay monopoly rents.

While we’re grateful to Google and the institutions who participated, we are disappointed that there is still the copyright sword of Damocles hanging over our heads if we step out of bounds as they define it and use any of the digitized images of the public domain works.  And so, sadly, we will not be posting any works from Google Art Projects.

* Taken to it’s logical extreme, Google’s copies of public domain books would be a copyright violation — what’s the difference between a high-res digital copy of printed matter (like a book) and a high-res digital copy of a 2-d image? None.  So we presume that the museums are relying on “brushstrokes.”   But, which images can you use commercially?  Works on paper? Pastels? Oil-on-board? Gouache? Chalk? Wood-block?  Illuminated manuscripts? The ambiguity and vagueness seems to us to be an extension of the purported “copyright” monopoly to non-copyrighted images. Or laziness: Museums — are all digitized images within your purported “copyrights”? What about “slavish” copies (scans) of 2 d images in the public domain? How about copies of public domain books that contain photos of public domain works, including the brushstrokes or other 3-d aspects? 

**We have a plan: A year or so ago we were at UC Berkeley’s Doe Library, up on the top floor where we saw a room with a sign, “Rare Book Reading Room.”  We banged on the door and rattled the knob, but no one was home. Anyway, entry was only for grad students and faculty.  We’re neither.  As we cogitated this situation over a coffee, the barrista said she was an . . .  art history grad student. (Actually we could tell). (Tats and piercings and all).  Soooo…. when we have more time, we plan on bribing hiring our mole to go into the public institution to scan public domain images (without damaging anything, of course) that our tax dollars already paid for. Shh. Don’t tell anyone.

*** Our view is that the financial services industry has taken a hatchet to the middle class, and so tax dollars are scarce, and museums must rely on rich people (a.k.a., financial services). We’ve blogged ad nauseum about the financial services industry dysfunction on our other blog. So museums are like one big Greece — indebted to bankers who basically have a lien on the historical treasures bought and paid for by public tax dollars.


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