Free download of artworks


“Today, a new economics of intellectual property is prevailing. Increasingly, and to a degree paradoxically, firms in electronics, biotechnology, and other fields find that maintaining and defending a proprietary system of intellectual property often cripples their ability to create value.”
Tapscott & Williams, Wikinomics, 2008

Art Stories opened our eyes to the fact that if we wanted to work with art history on the Internet’s own terms we needed to build a foundation consisting of freely available and accessible digital images. The habitual approach to organising digital images in museums – as assets that can be bought and sold – prevented us from realising our vision of establishing a network of digital art collections. We soon realised that we could not hope to change copyright rules and conditions outside the Danish borders. But we could try within our own ranks.

The idea of showing art from different collections side by side seemed an obvious choice and was possible online. By presenting art history digitally we could create meaningful connections between different collections, and links would make it possible to send users onwards to others. Rhizome-like, this would make it possible to enter the world map of art from any point, and from here a web of relationships would spread out in all directions. The basic idea was that creating synergies between our collections would be an advantage to museums. However, the high cost of purchasing images from each other was an obstacle.

[32] The five museums participating in the project were The Hirschsprung Collection, Funen Art Museum, Vejle Museum of Art, KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art Aalborg, and SMK. Here, Lars Ulrich Tarp Hansen from KUNSTEN Aalborg and Jonna Nielsen from Vejle Museum of Art are developing the concept for at a workshop, June 2010.
CC BY 4.0 Merete Sanderhoff

Up until this point, that particular issue had not attracted much attention within the Danish museum scene. Museums were used to showing only their own images on their websites, regarding each other as competitors fighting for the favours of the same users. However, the digital realm presents an alternative: The more art is made available online, and the better the connections and meaningful relations between them, the greater the “consumption” of art. Think along the same lines as the recommendations function found on the major Internet retailer site Amazon, that offers relevant recommendations when a customer buys a product, based on the customer’s own actions and the actions of other users: “Customers who bought this item also bought...” The online portal for the public libraries in Denmark,, features such an element in their search function. Transposing this principle to art collections could easily be done: “Users who looked at/enjoyed this work of art also looked at/ enjoyed...”

Once we had become aware of the issues concerning photo sales and image licensing within the Danish museum sector – and as we began to explore our established business models – it struck us that having museums pay for using each other’s images online was entirely outdated. Why try to make a living charging each other money when we could co-operate on creating links and networks that connect our collections, thereby increasing the overall interest in them? The Danish Agency for Culture agreed with this point of view, and in 2009 they granted funds for a pilot project to explore, how Danish art museums might establish a practice of free image sharing; one that requires fewer resources and is better adapted to the digital age, its conditions, and its potential.

SMK invited four other Danish art museums to co-operate in order to identify how we usually exchanged images and how we could change that practice in order to save money and optimise our outreach. [32] Since 2006, SMK had taken part in a national digitisation project called Dansk Kulturarv (the Danish Cultural Heritage Project). [33] This collaboration had already demonstrated the strength and benefits that could be achieved by joining up and launching a nationwide effort to build a shared digital infrastructure and co-ordinate the public’s access to cultural heritage in digitised form. The pilot project on image sharing continued this approach, placing special emphasis on art museums and on sharing digital images for non-commercial online use.

International inspiration

During the pilot we investigated a number of international examples of sharing digital collections online for non-commercial use; specifically for education and research purposes. Many museums own considerable collections that are in the public domain. A frequently heard argument states that free and democratic access – for students, scholars, and teachers – to digitised copyright-free collections is in keeping with the museum role as a trustworthy and reliable source of learning and education. [34] We also came across weighty arguments of a financial nature. Museums such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Powerhouse Museum and the British Museum could document that they saved money on their photo sales by switching from manual administration to a digital set-up where users can download their requested images themselves. [35]

Using digital methods of distribution caused the exposure and visibility of collections to skyrocket. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney found that their photographic Tyrell collection attracted 20 times more views after it was posted on the Flickr Commons – an open online archive of photographic collections with no known copyright restrictions. The greater exposure of the collection meant that it was discovered by potential users who had not previously found the images on the museum’s own website. *32

Interestingly, the Powerhouse Museum could document stable commercial sales pertaining to their Tyrell collection after the images were made available for download from Flickr – without copyright restrictions, but in low resolutions unsuited for commercial use. In other words, the presence on Flickr had effected a significant boost in the exposure and usefulness of the Tyrell collection without reducing the income from commercial photo sales. In addition to this, the collection data had been enriched by tags generated by Flickr users – tags that the museum incorporated back into their own database, thereby improving search results within their own collections. [36]

The example offered by the Powerhouse Museum (and many other museums, especially museums of cultural history, that share their photographic collections on Flickr Commons) inspired us to integrate Flickr into This was the simple image database that we developed, in order to demonstrate how easily museums can share their digital images. gave all participating museums the opportunity to upload high-resolution images, incorporate metadata from the shared Danish museum registration database Regin/KID, and tag their pictures.*33 also featured an option that allowed individual museums to share their images outside the closed database in the Flickr group KunstMuseerDanmark which we created for the purpose.*34
The basic concept was to offer the project partners an opportunity to share their images – not just with other museums in a closed system, but with the general public too, in order to see what synergies might arise. This would primarily involve works in the public domain to which the museums owned all photographic rights. However, only few of the participants chose to use that option. The familiar concerns about what people might do with the images if they were freely available online were very prominent among the museums. Awareness of the potentials in contributing to the Internet’s store of freely available resources was limited. One of the conclusions inferred from the pilot project was that awareness-raising work was necessary and crucial to make progress.

Copyright negotiations

The work to raise awareness about the potentials in sharing images freely was not only aimed at museums. One of the key reasons why the Danish Agency for Culture supported the pilot project, was that the project group would present possible common solutions for all Danish art museums for handling copyright issues when sharing images. As a result, one of the objectives was to negotiate a collective agreement on sharing copyrighted images with the Danish copyright organisation for art, CopyDan BilledKunst. Such an agreement was meant to apply to all copyrighted images in a collective pool to which all participating art museums contributed during the course of the project. We could have made things easier for ourselves by limiting the scope of the project to works in the public domain. However, as public-sector art institutions with the obligation of elucidating the history of art and culture as widely and deeply as possible, it would severely limit our scope if we only presented the older parts of our collections. One of the museums participating in the project, KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art Aalborg, contributed a collection of artworks all under copyright, so addressing this issue was necessary.

The initial proposal made by the project partners to CopyDan was a model in which each copyrighted image was placed in a shared museum database and cleared once, allowing it to be shown on multiple sites concurrently without requiring additional payment; this would include platforms other than those of the museums owning the original artworks. With such an agreement we wanted to unlock the obvious potential inherent in having museums show images from fellow museums, throwing light on each other’s works and sending users on to each other. However, CopyDan was not willing to discuss this option. They maintained that all rights must be cleared per view, not per work – and it should be noted that this means “standard views”, i.e. artworks in their full, uncropped form. We also failed to find common ground when it came to more dynamic views and uses such as cropped images, digitally manipulated images, or the use of images in games and videos. CopyDan would not accept collective agreements on such usage. As a result, each case must be individually addressed by each individual museum. The only option that CopyDan was willing to discuss was predefined packages where museums do not carry out individual negotiations, but choose a pre-negotiated package with a number of “standard views” on their own platforms that match each museum’s projected needs.

Of course, CopyDan’s job is to protect what they perceive to be the artists’ interests. The pilot project had no intention whatsoever of challenging this. Quite the contrary: artists are unlikely to find more dedicated and conscientious champions than the museums. This is precisely why we hoped that CopyDan would join us in developing new kinds of agreements that would be better suited to embrace digital media’s potential for reaching and communicating with users. In the longer term we might even consider incorporating the user position, creating agreements that would be better suited to facilitate the users’ growing expectations of taking part in museums’ online initiatives – of being able to do something with museum images, remixing and reworking them, commenting on them and sharing them. Examples from the realms of literature and music show that it may be in the artist’s own best interest to allow more lenient online use of their works. [37]

Danish state-subsidised museums are legally obligated to present their collections to the public, and our most important task is to promote awareness and appreciation of art and cultural heritage in all its variety to everyone. We have an obligation to use the media and channels that enable us to reach the largest possible number of users. It is absolutely imperative to be accessible on the Internet and via digital media today. In light of this fact it is a shame that some museums are forced to opt out of presenting the modern and contemporary parts of their collections because prohibitive copyright costs prevent them from offering convenient and ready access to such art.

The line of the main museum

Lengthy and not particularly fruitful, these negotiations taught us that the field of copyright changes only slowly and unwillingly. As Lawrence Lessig and Clay Shirky have both pointed out, copyright organisations have their roots firmly planted in the paradigm of the printed press, and introducing a paradigm shift takes time.*35 But even if things ground to a halt in the copyright negotiations, the museums involved in the project agreed to move ahead as far as sharing works in the public domain was concerned. The project had made us fundamentally aware that sharing pays off. None of the participating museums could document any significant profit from selling images, and the administrative work involved was so time-consuming that it cancelled out any profits. Thus, all project participants were greatly in favour of transitioning to digital practices instead. [38]

One of the crucially important lessons of the pilot project was that the smaller Danish art museums would often follow in the footsteps of SMK where photo sales are concerned. SMK launched the pilot project because we had come across a major roadblock: our vision of launching a website of art history on the Internet’s own terms would be far too expensive to realise under the current image licensing regulations. As the project progressed we paradoxically realised that SMK’s own high prices on photo sales set a regrettable standard among Danish art museums: The smaller museums largely followed the policies set down by the nation’s main museum. It was true that several of the museums employed an informal practice of free image sharing with smaller, local museums because they had long since realised that it made better financial sense to simply swap images than to transfer small amounts of money back and forth. But when SMK turned to these museums for images, they felt compelled to charge for the transaction because SMK charged such high prices for transactions the other way.

Here we were at SMK, with the ambition of becoming a “fully digital art museum”, a “trailblazer” for digital museum practice, and now we found ourselves impeded by our own business model for photo sales; a policy that dates back to before the digital age began. Furthermore, SMK hampered interested users and fellow museums in their use of our digitised collections by setting the price level so high that many had to opt out of using our images in their contexts and on their platforms. [39] This was certainly an eye-opening discovery for us. We felt that we ought to be able to use this tendency amongst Danish museums to follow the main museum’s lead, turning it into something constructive.

The conclusion of the pilot project – and the message delivered to the Danish Agency for Culture, which had funded the project – was that if free image sharing is to become the norm among Danish art museums, it will require co-ordinated efforts at a national level. In the evaluation of the pilot project, which was carried out by a focus group consisting of museum professionals from nine Danish art museums, the unanimous verdict was that the ideal solution would be to expand the existing national Regin/KID museum database by adding high-resolution images for use by museum and audiences alike. The Danish Agency for Culture has been working on an update of Regin/KID for years, and one of the intentions is to integrate high-resolution images in the new version. [40]

In order to help further the development, we launched two initiatives in the wake of the pilot project:

• We began to plan how SMK, being Denmark’s main museum of art, could push Danish practices on image licensing in a direction of greater openness and greater orientation towards the digital.
• We planned a nationwide information campaign aimed at Danish museums in order to raise awareness of the potentials inherent in free image sharing.

It had proven difficult to realise the vision behind Art Stories. On a positive note, Art Stories had marked the beginning of an important journey towards co-ordinated efforts aiming at openness and sharing across the Danish GLAM sector.


*32  Flickr Commons:
The Powerhouse Museum’s Tyrell-collection on Flickr:

*33  Regin is the central register of works of art owned by Danish state- operated and state-recognised museums. The general public’s access to the register is mediated through Kunstindeks Danmark (KID) KID includes images of registered works of art, but a copyright agreement with CopyDan BilledKunst means that the images can only be shown in a 72 dpi resolution, i.e. as thumbnails only.

*34  The sites and KunstMuseerDanmark were both intended as temporary demonstration sites and were taken down when the pilot project had completed its run. A full report on the pilot project “Billeddeling og udvikling af digitale værktøjer” (“Image Sharing and Developing Digital Tools”) is available for download here:

*34  Lessig, 2001, pp. 3-16; Shirky, 2010, pp. 31-56.

Updated: 7.jul.2014
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