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“I’m Sorry, You Can’t Take Photographs Here”: Museum Copyright Claims Debunked in Fordham Law Journal

Museum Policies and Art Images: Conflicting Objectives and Copyright Overreaching, a new paper by Kenneth D. Crews of Columbia University’s Copyright Advisory Office, published in the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal, outlines the way museums often stretch the boundaries of their ownership of images of works in their collections through legally iffy claims of copyright. The paper examines the  policies of major institutions and argues that curbing the usual  “overreaching” in favor of less stingy image sharing policies can better serve both the institutions and the public’s interests.

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6 Responses

  1. Rainey Knudson

    I saw an Ed Ruscha retrospective in Stockholm a couple of years ago that drew works from many collections. The entire show could be photographed, save for three paintings with prominent signs in front of them forbidding it. They were all from MoMA. It didn’t reflect well.

  2. But the weird thing is that MoMA lets you take photos. I’ve taken many, many photos at MoMA. Some particular pieces or shows may have signs forbidding photography, but the vast majority of pieces there can be and are photographed by patrons.

    1. Rainey Knudson

      I know, but they weren’t allowing it at the Moderna Museet for some reason. I even took a picture, which I just dug up: MoMA no photo copyright policy

  3. Bill Davenport

    I frequently want to photograph works in exhibitions for reviews,”fair use” if there ever was, and always dread conflicts with museum guards, the underpaid staffers charged with the impossible task of enforcing their institutions’ image-control policies while remaining polite.

    In addition to copyright, many institutions, and the dreaded Artist Rights Society base their claims to image control on a fictitious right to present works in a manner the artist intended, or would approve. Inappropriate re-use of creative works has always been one of the driving mechanisms behind artistic innovation. Artworks are not people, and cannot be libeled, or slandered. Used, distorted, disrespected, maybe, but that’s no crime.

    1. I had a LACMA guard almost tackle me for trying to take a picture of Eli Broad’s collection – in CRATES. Jeff Koons’ “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” was sticking out of a box, it would have been such a great image…and it really improved the piece.

  4. I want to take pictures for the same reason as you do, Bill. In museums, I usually ask for permission because I don’t want guards to be forced to tell me to stop. As you say, they are just enforcing a policy that they have no control over. And usually, they’re glad if you ask permission. It’s the polite thing to do! (If I can’t get the photos I want, I’ll write the museum requesting images.)

    I’ve taken photos in museums in Fort Worth, Dallas, New York and New Orleans, no problem. But in the the museums in Houston, it is strictly forbidden. For the life of me, I don’t see why it’s OK at the DMA and MoMA but not the MFAH.

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