Home » Copyright/Intellectual Property, Legal Stuff » How Can Museums Copyright the Works of Old Masters?

How Can Museums Copyright the Works of Old Masters?

12 February 2019

From Artrepreneur:

Go to any art museum in the world and you’ll find hundreds of visitors with cameras in hand, snapping photos of their favorite, well-known works. Many of these great pieces no longer have copyright protection yet, these institutions often sell merchandise such as posters that claim the Museum has copyright ownership. As a copyright holder, that institution would have the exclusive right to reproduce the work, make derivatives of it, publicly display it, and distribute it. Conversely, that also means the copyright holder can stop anyone else from doing those things. Take the Monet poster of The Four Trees from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, shown here. This poster includes a copyright notice:  © 2010 MMA.

If the Monet is in the public domain, meaning free from copyright protection, then how can the Met Museum claim copyright on such an old work? If The Four Trees is really copyright free, then can someone sell an image of the work? Can the Met Museum stop someone from taking a photo of the painting and selling that photo or creating posters from it?  For that matter, who would hold a copyright on a photo of a copyright-free work?

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Let’s start with some basic tenets of copyright protection. First, the Copyright Act says that copyright protection is available for “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression . . . ”  That’s just a fancy way of saying that the work is new and unique. It isn’t a copy or based on someone else’s work and the work has been produced onto something tangible that enables it to be perfectly reproduced and shown to others, such as a work on paper, photos from a digital camera, or a .jpg image file.

. . . .

In addition, the courts have said that for a work to be copyrightable, it must have some level of creativity. Admittedly, this is somewhat subjective and there is no “bright line” from which we know must be crossed to determine the level of creativity required. However, in general, the required level of creativity is very low.

So, if a work fits these criteria; original, tangible and creative, then copyright is automatic and immediate. For example, if you take a photo of your friends with your iPhone camera, the photo is automatically copyrighted because 1) the composition of the photo such as the placement and position of your friends and the setting is unique and original; 2) the choices you made when taking the photo, such as the angle  and distance is considered creative; 3) the photo is captured by the camera sensor so it is fixed in a tangible medium. All three criteria are therefore met.

. . . .

Now that we know the basic factors for copyright eligibility, let’s use these concepts to analyze whether the Met Museum can claim a copyright for the Monet poster. First, we know the poster is fixed in a tangible medium. In this case, it is the paper the poster is printed so that part is fine.

What about originality? One could argue that the Met Museum has merely reproduced Monet’s work so from that perspective it is just a copy and therefore, not original. In addition, Monet’s The Four Trees was created in 1893, and as discussed, any work created prior to 1924 is in the Public Domain. Reproducing artwork that is in the Public Domain cannot extend copyright protection; otherwise, every time a creative work had reached the end of its copyrightable life, the author could just take a picture of it to renew its copyright. The requirement for a limited time would essentially be meaningless.

If the Monet Poster is merely reproducing the Monet, then it cannot claim copyright protection.

. . . .

Well, the copyright isn’t in the Monet painting but in the poster itself.  If the creator of a work incorporates preexisting material from another creator, such as public domain or other copyrighted works, into his or her new work, the new work can receive a copyright if 1) the creator disclaims the preexisting material and 2) the remaining part of the work is copyrightable (i.e. original, in a tangible medium) and has some creativity.

. . . .

The Monet poster is no different. Monet’s The Four Trees is not the sole element on the poster but includes text that is not haphazard but designed, even if the design is a simple one. The position of the text on the page, the font, and size, as well as the choice of color (or lack thereof), are all creative choices and are unique to this poster. So, the Met Museum is claiming copyright protection for the layout of the poster, not the Monet itself, which it would have to disclaim.

. . . .

While taking a photo of a Public Domain work is free to sell from a copyright perspective, there are other legal issues to consider. One of these issues is contract law. When you buy your ticket to enter a museum, even if the museum is free to enter, there are usually Terms of Service that you agree to in exchange for entering the museum. The terms dictate behavior and rules of the museum and can be far-reaching, including expected behavior, age limits, use of certain equipment or even what size bag you are allowed to bring into the museum.

You automatically agree to the Terms of Service when you step onto the museum grounds. An explicit agreement, acknowledgment, or even knowing where to find them is not required. The Terms of Service are unique to each museum and can vary widely, especially between private, public or government-subsidized institutions. Most will include a section related to photography.

The Met Museum’s photography policy states:

“Still photography is permitted for private, noncommercial use only in the Museum’s galleries devoted to the permanent collection. Photographs cannot be published, sold, reproduced, transferred, distributed, or otherwise commercially exploited in any manner whatsoever. Photography is not permitted in special exhibitions or areas designated as “No Photography”; works of art on loan from private collections or other institutions may not be photographed. The use of flash is prohibited at all times and in all galleries. Movie and video cameras are prohibited. Tripods are allowed Wednesday through Friday, and only with a permit issued by the Information Desk in the Great Hall. “

According to these terms, despite the copyright issues discussed earlier, selling photos taken within the museum is prohibited and override any issues of copyright. So even though the work is in the Public Domain and the only place to take a true photo is at the Met Museum, you would still be unable to sell the photo taken there.

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So how can museums copyright paintings from old masters? As we have seen, they can’t. What they can do, though, is copyright the poster and place the copyright notice in such a way that it misleads people into thinking that they have this right.

Link to the rest at Artrepreneur

PG suggests that a wise museum director would think twice before attempting to enforce a “contract” printed in mouse type on the back of a ticket. (As a point of clarification, prior to the existence of computer mice, “mouse type” referred to tiny, almost unreadable type sizes used for disclaimers of various sorts).

A couple of litigation strategies and some other thoughts come to mind:

  1. One might argue that the form of the contract was inherently deceptive and unenforceable in that it was purposely designed to discourage reading.
    1. One might interview a random sample of museum patrons to ask them what agreements they made with the museum when they entered the museum and whether they had even noticed the existence of a contract on the back of their ticket.
    2. In such case, PG posits that one would be lucky to find one patron out of one thousand who knew anything about the terms of the “binding contract.” Is this a species of consumer fraud perpetrated by the Met?
  2. Since young persons frequently come to art museums, is the museum attempting to bind them to a contract when they are too young to enter into contracts under state law?
    1. As can be attested by large numbers of parents and grandparents, any child can take a photo with an iPhone.
    2. If a child takes a photo of a Monet on a school outing, can the child’s parent who was at work and didn’t go to the museum (and thus, was not bound by the “contract” on the back of the child’s ticket) exploit it commercially?
    3. In fact, if a group arranges a visit to the Met, does each member of the group actually receive a ticket with the “contract” language on the back? If the group is comprised of school children, does each parent sign a document that includes the terms of the Met’s contract, agreeing to be bound by that contract?
  3. PG has not entered the Met Museum for many years, but he doubts mouse type on the back of the Met’s tickets meets legal requirements necessary to accommodate those with vision impairment or other disabling conditions under various federal and state laws.
  4. One might argue that the Met’s photography policy is a poorly-disguised attempt to circumvent the copyright laws of the United States and France (and the various international copyright treaties entered into by each country over the years since Monet made his painting) by effectively extending copyright protections far beyond the terms permitted under the laws of the United States and such treaties.
    1. As the OP describes, the US Constitution permits Congress to enact copyright laws for the purpose of “securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries”.
    2. Whatever copyright protections Oscar-Claude Monet, the creator of the work, may have held have long expired, but the Met still deceptively attempts to treat the painting as somehow protected from unauthorized copying and reproduction in a manner equivalent to copyright protection.
    3. The Met helpfully provides the provenance of the painting:
      1. [Knoedler, New York, until 1893; stock no. 7287; their sale, American Art Association, New York, April 14, 1893, no. 362, as “The Four Trees (Poplar Series),” for $1,175 to Durand-Ruel]; [Durand-Ruel, New York, 1893–95; stock no. 1063; sold on January 12, 1895 to Havemeyer]; Mr. and Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, New York (1895–his d. 1907); Mrs. H. O. (Louisine W.) Havemeyer, New York (1907–d. 1929; cat., 1931, p. 160, ill., as “Landscape—Les Quatre arbres”)
      2. In each of the transfers of the painting, beginning with its sale by Monet, was copyright to the painting explicitly transferred or, in the absence of an explicit copyright transfer, did Monet retain copyright and merely transfer the painting itself? Where’s the proof?

PG has blathered for too long. As an amateur photographer, he has always been annoyed by museums’ attempts to force patrons to purchase an often second-rate photograph of an artwork from the museum instead of permitting PG to take a more pleasing (at least for him) photo of his own for his personal enjoyment.

Copyright/Intellectual Property, Legal Stuff

3 Comments to “How Can Museums Copyright the Works of Old Masters?”

  1. As someone who works full-time at a small house museum, I always appreciate when people ASK if they are allowed to take photos, rather than just ASSUMING they are allowed. That said, we encourage people to take pictures. For one thing, it’s too much of a hassle to enforce some kind of policy like that. For another, part of my job duties are marketing the museum online–and I know that someone seeing pictures on Facebook or Instagram can only be a good thing in terms of marketing. 🙂

  2. I was just looking at online images from a 15th century copy of Le Livre de la Chasse (written by Gaston Phoebus in the 14th century) and was really annoyed to see the museum exhibiting the book claiming also to own the copyright. A 14th century book? Really?

    (Why, yes, I had hoped to write a blog post about the medieval coursing described in Le Livre de la Chasse, and had envisioned including some illuminated manuscript pages in my post.)

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