Deaccessioning by Copyright

The principal reason for my trip to New York – stop number three on my wiki-world museum tour 🙂 – was to deliver a guest lecture and workshop hosted by the Copyright Advisory Office of Columbia University on the relationship of Wikipedia and Art Museums, especially focusing on digital access. Approximately 50 people attended, principally staff from the university library and academics from the faculty of law.
[Columbia’s Butler Library, where I gave my talk]

Thanks especially to the director of the Copyright Centre Kenneth Crews (bio, twitter) for inviting me to come and most importantly for organising with Melissa Brown a study of museum licensing practices funded by The Samuel H. Kress Foundation. The first paper to come out of this research grant is a broad survey of the multimedia access practices of many U.S. art museum:

Control of Museum Art Images: The Reach and Limits of Copyright and Licensing

and I cannot recommend it highly enough for anyone who’s interested in the topic!

Here are the slides from the presentation. I took the opportunity to be, shall we say, more forthright than I would usually be as this was my first presentation to a legally-trained audience. Given that I, on the other hand, am not a lawyer I figured I’d better pull something new out of the hat to impress 🙂 So, after first going on a whirlwind tour of art copyright on Wikipedia (everything from Fair Use to Freedom of Panorama) I decided to use the occasion to propose a metaphor I’ve been thinking about. One that uses museum terminology to explain how people in the free-culture community see some relatively common practices in the art museum world.

That placing restrictions on the usage of digital objects, where those restrictions would not be countenanced for the physical object, is akin to “deaccessioning by copyright”

Deaccessioning is the process where by a museum decides to dispose of objects from its collection and is generally considered to be a necessary evil that should only be done with the long-term purpose of the institution in mind. Especially in public museums it is considered to be such a fraught issue because it implies the reneging of a promise – to accession something is to promise to preserve it so that future generations may be able to have access to today’s culture, de-accessioning is to go back on that promise even if for a good reason.

It is this slightly-guilty feeling that I am trying to encapsulate with the metaphor of “deaccessioning by copyright” – that digital copyright and access policies should be thought out with the same care for the future generation’s access to the collection and not as simply a way of raising some income. I am not saying that museums are actually deaccessioning things by putting restrictions on them, and I’m not saying that a museums aren’t allowed to have a business model.  it’s just a metaphor to make a point. Of course, if a public museum is forced to chose between selling high-resolution images or charge an entry fee then I would go with the former as the lesser of two evils.

Many public museums have policies that encourage visitors to the building to feel that they are the “owners” of the collection. The museum might have a free-entry policy, publicly available
research library or special events for local residents. Yet, often these same museums will consider their digital visitors to be not deserving of the same access-rights and deliberately restrict the ways a digital visitor can access the collection – either for fear of losing some revenue or for fear of the digital visitor not using the collection “correctly”. Where a physical visitor is a welcome guest a digital visitor trying to negotiate the rights/access pages can feel like they’re at best a burden and at worst an art-thief.

Some examples of what I’m talking about are:

  • Requiring payment from a digital visitor simply to send you a file of a Public Domain work (not for staff time or equipment usage which I can understand) because there are “problems”. I call this one the “papal indulgence” fee – money seems to magically make “problems” disappear. An in-person visitor would more often than not be allowed to see/study the original object for no charge.
  • Requiring the digital visitor to sign a contract explaining the precise ways in which the digital file will be used, even when there it’s in the Public Domain. An in-person visitor is only on extremely rare occasions asked to sign a contract explaining the purpose of their research before being allowed access.
  • Claiming copyright in scans of archival documents, transcriptions, paintings, prints that are hundreds of years old. See also Bridgeman v. Corel for a legal reasoning, not just a moral one.
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4 Responses to Deaccessioning by Copyright

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Deaccessioning by Copyright | Witty’s Blog --

  2. So how did the lawyers to be react?

    The last point you list, claiming copyright in scans of public domain art, is something we’ve tried to discourage in Europeana in our Public Domain Charter:

    Not binding for anyone of course, but we hope it can serve as encouragement to open up rather than lock away.

  3. Pingback: Generalising » Blog Archive » Unconnected linkspam

  4. Pingback: The NPG at GLAM-WIKI | Witty’s Blog

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