Do museums have copyrights on their Old Master paintings? No, Not really.

March 4th, 2013

An email I frequently receive (always from timorous art history students and scholars) regards image copyrights on the web: “Is the 350 year old Rembrandt, Vermeer etc. I need to reproduce for my Powerpoint presentation protected by copyright?”

No, it isn’t.

At least not according to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruling of the Bridgeman Art Library vs. Corel Corp. In fact, not even museums claim copyrights on their centuries-old paintings; they claim copyrights on the PHOTOGRAPHS (theirs only, not yours) of their centuries-old paintings.

However, the Bridgeman ruling informs that an exact photographic copy of an artwork in public domain images (e.g. our Rembrandt because it’s pretty old, way past 100) is not protected by copyright in the United States because it LACKS ORIGINALITY, and originality is the key concept in copyright protection.

Even if the photographer utilizes the most advanced technology imaginable to produce that”perfect”digital image, the process essentially amounts to something like”slavish” imitation because photographer adds no creative value whatsoever to the painting. Nor does the transposition of the art work into another medium constitute creativity. After all, his only goal is to make the photograph indistinguishable as possible from the original Rembrandt. Look at it this way, if you copy the Bible letter for letter, even with the latest most advanced hi-tech laser pen, it is fairly obvious you cannot claim copyright on your Bible.

Museums argue that without copyright they will lose important introits, 10% and more. Here’s the ruling:
http://www.law.cornell.edu/copyright/cases/36_FSupp2d_191.htm

Here’s one defense (not particularly convincing):
http://www.law.uci.edu/pdf/treese/reese_publicdomainpaintings.pdf

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