Making public domain works available in a public domain way respects copyright and spreads culture.


Yesterday’s news from the Getty Museum that they were making high-resolution images of 4,600 works in their collection available for free download should be celebrated by anyone who cares about art and culture. And it should also be celebrated by anyone who cares about copyright and the public domain, and who is thinking about what it means to be a modern museum dedicated to bringing people into contact with art.

Let’s get the art and culture part out of the way first.  One of the great things about museums is that they allow people who are not, say, massively rich oil magnates to access culture. And one of the great things about the internet is that they allow people who are not physically near something to experience it themselves. Combining the two makes all sorts of sense.

Museums like the Getty house art, and some art is protected by copyright. And Getty should be commended for recognizing that just because some art is protected by copyright, all is not.  A huge portion of the art in the Getty’s collection is in the public domain.  That means that it is no longer protected by copyright and that no one – not Getty, not you, not me, needs permission to make a copy of it.

But there is a difference between being legally able to make a copy and being organizationally willing to make a copy. And there is also a difference between being organizationally willing to make a copy and being willing to make that copy freely available to the public. Getty made all the right choices in making the files available to the public in an unrestricted way.

Public Domain Means Anyone Can Use it For Anything

To be clear, making high-resolution scans of public domain art does not bring it back under copyright protection.  That means that Getty does not have any copyright in the files that it is making available, even though it surely spent a great deal of time and money making them.

But not having copyrights in images does not always stop people or entities from trying to assert copyright-like control over files. It is not hard to imagine Getty making these files available for non-commercial use only, or in a way that required attribution to Getty for use. While these requests could not be enforced via copyright, they could be enforced (at least somewhat) as part of the Terms of Service for the site.

Getty declined to do that. They recognized that public domain means freely available to everyone for any purpose and did not try to set up extra restrictions on use. It is true that they ask why you are using the images when you download them. And, in their announcement, they did request that users attribute the source of the files to Getty. But there is no red light that goes off when a user indicates that she will use the image commercially, or a pop up demanding attribution under penalty of lawsuit.  

In making all of these decisions, Getty recognized that part of its mission is to share its collection with the public. It also expressed confidence that sharing its collection digitally would not mean that people would stop coming to the museum to see the original works in person.

Going Beyond Images to 3D Files

Getty is not the first museum to make digital files of its artwork available to the public, but as one of our nation’s most prestigious institutions, its decision will hopefully push other museums to follow suit.  And as they examine their collections, those institutions should not stop at paintings and drawings.  Thanks to the expanding availability of 3D scanning and 3D printing, they can make their sculptures and installations available as well. The Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum have started to do just that.  

Pretty soon you will be able to print out a copy of a Cezanne still life and hang it over a 9th century bust of Hanuman.

Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

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Published on July 05, 2018