Art And Copyright In The Age Of Compulsive Looking

We wrote recently about how the rise of mobile phones with built-in cameras has led to an irresistible urge to record our experiences everywhere with a digital picture. But what happens when those experiences include works of art, which may still be under copyright? That’s the interesting question an article in Art News explores:

We’re in an age when people take pictures just about everywhere, an act that photography critic Jörg M. Colberg describes as “compulsive looking.” The phenomenon has created a unique set of challenges for art museums, many of which have historically had strict limitations on photography — either for the purpose of protecting light-sensitive works or because of copyright issues.

The good news is that some art museums are beginning to revisit their old rules, not least because they themselves are starting to share images through social media:

This past January, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reported that 97 percent of the more than 1,200 arts organizations it polled had a presence on platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr.

This makes it difficult for visitors to understand why they can’t do the same, and to use photos as starting points for their own creativity:

Every day, users on image-sharing sites such as Tumblr create their own diptychs, collages, and themed galleries devoted to everything from ugly Renaissance babies to Brutalist architecture.

Finally, there is the fact that it is increasingly hard to police bans on photography in museums, and that even trying may not be sensible:

“Guards are spending so much time focusing on someone holding a device that they might not see the person next to them touching the art,” says Alisa Martin, senior manager of brand management and visitor services at the Brooklyn Museum, an institution that has allowed photography in the majority of its galleries for roughly half a dozen years. “As the devices get smaller, it gets harder to manage. We have to ask ourselves, are we using our guards appropriately?”

As devices shrink and become always-on — think Google Glass — that problem will only grow, as copyright designed for the eighteenth century clashes with technology from the twenty-first century. In a sense, this is the visual equivalent of attempts to stop unauthorized sharing of files online. That’s not only futile, but causes copyright companies and governments to obsess about something that is not really a problem, as numerous posts on Techdirt have pointed out. Art museums seem to be learning that it’s better to embrace change and turn it to their advantage; it’s time others did the same, and started looking at the bigger picture.

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