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“...what does it mean that there are millions of images online that we are not allowed to touch at all when there are also millions of images we can use as we please?”
Peter Leth, Creative Commons for alle, 2011*16

In February of 2012 I attended a dinner party where one of the guests, an art historian, related an anecdote that stuck in my mind. She was preparing a lecture for an art appreciation class at Folkeuniversitet (a Danish adult education system based on academic teaching) and needed a number of pictures for her PowerPoint presentation; pictures of artworks that she knew were in the SMK collections. She emailed the museum to request eight images in a suitable resolution. The museum replied that the images could be ordered at a price of $9 each, plus a handling fee of $14; a total of $86. Not a huge amount, perhaps, but the cost prompted her to decline the museum’s high-quality images. As she replied: “As I will only receive a modest fee for my teaching at Open University, the cost is rather too high.”

Folkeuniversitetet pays its teachers approximately $330 for a two-hour teaching session. After taxes this leaves around $180 for the speaker. Here, the lecturer would have spent around half of her fee on images for her presentation. And that would only have covered the eight pictures from SMK. After her dialogue with SMK she refrained from contacting any other museums for images, opting instead to find all the images she needed on the Internet.*17

Moral rights and photographic rights

The anecdote points to a widespread problem: Museums actually prevent the dissemination and use of their digitised collections by levying unnecessary fees on the use of their images. When I speak about the use of museum’s digital images this involves two separate rights aspects, each with its own bearing on the issue, and these two aspects should be clarified.

• Firstly there are the moral rights associated with the work – these rights belong to the creator of the original work and remain in effect until 70 years after the artist’s death. At that point the copyright lapses and the work is in the Public Domain.*18
• Secondly there are the photographic rights. These concern the rights pertaining to the photographic record of the artwork. Some museums own the rights to the photographic images of their collections themselves. At other museums the photographer who took the pictures owns the photographic rights and must be paid and credited every time the museum uses the images.

Digitale fotografiske optagelser – dvs. enten digitaliserede udgaver af oprindeligt analoge fotografier, eller optagelser udført med digitalkamera – gør principielt transaktionen af billeder langt nemmere end med analoge fotografier, fx ektakromer og dias, fordi transaktionen kan foregå via internettet og kan automatiseres. Brugeren kan selv finde og downloade en kopi af det ønskede digitale materiale, og et enkelt digitale billede kan genbruges et ubegrænset antal gange. Analoge billeder, derimod, skal hentes manuelt frem fra en fysisk placering i et arkiv, og leveres tilbage efter brug.

Digital photographic images – i.e. digitised versions of photographs that were originally taken using analogue techniques, or pictures taken with digital cameras – make the transaction of images much easier compared to analogue photographs, such as Ektachromes and slides, because the transaction can take place via the Internet and be automated. Users can find and download copies of digital materials themselves, and a single digital image can be re-used an unlimited number of times. By contrast, analogue pictures must be collected manually from a specific physical setting, and returned to their proper place in the archives after use.

SMK owns the photographic rights to all its images, both digital and analogue. At least two thirds of the museum collections are in the public domain, meaning that they are not restricted by either moral rights or photographic rights.*19 In other words there are no legal impediments preventing SMK from sharing these images with the public for free. The fact that SMK (and most other museums across the world) usually require users to register and pay for using images of artworks in the public domain is often based on a wish to prevent misuse. Their concern extends to the moral rights associated with the image, and are based on worries that the integrity of the original artwork could be damaged, e.g. by being reproduced on biscuit tins or in unwanted political contexts. It also concerns the protection of photographic rights, for when museums have paid to have photos taken they will also wish to be able to turn a profit from the images by selling them for use, in publications, online, on postcards, posters, etc. In this sense the two aspects of image rights exercise a mutual influence on each other, for museums have traditionally wanted to protect the moral rights associated with their artworks by maintaining the photographic rights. The question is whether it is appropriate and responsible – in ethical and economic terms – for state-subsidised museums to restrict the use of images in the public domain.

Inexpedient impediments

The story told above highlights three problems that museums face when restricting access to and re-use of digitised cultural heritage in the public domain:

1. We are pushing interested users away from the authorised source of information about the works in our collections.
2. We are missing out by not using our potential for becoming a central hub for motivated users who wish to learn about and work creatively with art.
3. We are undermining our own raison d’etre as public cultural institution.

My encounter with the anecdote related here reinforced my awareness that museums must rethink and reinvent the way we handle our digitised collections.


*16 In Danish only. Quote translated for this occassion.

*17  Mai Misfeldt, critic, public speaker, MA in Danish and Art History, told me this anecdote and has kindly permitted me to relate it here. See Folkeuniversitetet’s fee rates

*18 Public Domain refers to a commons of non-copyrighted public property

*SMK encompasses three collections:
1. The Royal Collection of Paintings and Sculptures containing approx. 10,000 objects
2. The Royal Collection of Graphic Art containing approx. 245,000 works of art on paper
3. The Royal Cast Collection comprising approx. 2,500 plaster casts

Almost 100% of the works featured in the Paintings and Sculptures, and Cast collections have been digitised, i.e. photographed and recorded in the museum’s collection database, but only approximately 15% of the Graphic Art collection. Out of the 32,800 unique works recorded in the collection database a total of 18,426 are in the public domain, corresponding to approximately 56%. If we consider the total number of artworks, including each individual leaf in sketchbooks, etc. (a total of 52,877 works) we find that 30,211 of these are in the public domain, corresponding to approximately 58%. It is estimated that more than 80% of the Graphic Art collection is in the public domain. Non-copyrighted digital images can be viewed by the general public via the website and its “search the collections” functions. The images available here are in low resolution (except for 160 ‘free images’, which I shall return to on p. 86 ff.). The museum’s highresolution image files are stored in an image database allocated to the photo department. The image database can only be accessed by the museum’s photographers. Up until 2012 all other employees had to pay a fee when requesting images of the museum’s own works, for example in order to post them on The museum’s photographs can be obtained by external users for e.g. publications and education purposes against payment of a licensing fee; the exact payment will depend on the purpose and period of use about-smk/sale-of-photos/price-list/. The annual income generated by selling photographic images to external users amounts to approximately 500,000 DKK equivalent to $90,000. For the purpose of comparison, the annual net attribution of state funds to SMK is 79 million DKK equivalent to $14.3 million (2013).

Updated: 26.apr.2018
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