May 30, 2014
Earlier this week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it had created 4,000 high-resolution images of artwork from its collection and would make them available for non-commercial use.
Very quickly, two divergent views on this emerged.
First, the positive: Museum spokeswoman Ann Bailis told the Washington Post that the museum underwent this effort because it wanted its collections to be “tangibly, usefully public.” These images are now free to be used by scholars, students and commentators, who can put them up on Facebook, Twitter and the like. Openness and usefulness are good things, of course.
But over at Above The Law, the Met was derided for trying to exert copyright privileges over the images. Much of the art is in the public domain, because it was created so long ago, so the Met was criticized for trying to create a new copyright privilege for itself.
Now, I would hazard to guess that when the Met created a high-resolution of, say, John La Farge’s “Wild Roses and Irises,” it believes it has copyright control over that image, not the underlying work itself. The painting, which LaFarge created in 1887, isn’t copyrighted, so an art student could go the museum, snap a picture and post it to Tumblr and there isn’t much the Met could do about it. But since the Met spent the time and money to create the image, it wants some control over how it’s used.
So, do we believe the Met’s shiny-happy view of these images? Or Above The Law’s snarky take on it all? As is usually the case in life, the answer is probably somewhere in between. Let’s applaud the Met for trying to embrace the digital realities of life and making it easier for everyone to use and interact with its content, but let’s not forget this isn’t really a selfless act, either.