|You, Queenie, are in the Public Domain|
Today I went for another fascinating lecture at the Marjorie Russel Textile Museum in Carson City, NV, where I had the pleasure of looking at and also photographing (permitted) a great many beautiful historical shoes.
After the lecture I mentioned to the curator, Jan, that the Billinghurst Stays (from this post) had generated a lot of interest and conversation when I posted photos I’d taken on my blog. Jan said she wasn’t sure I should/could be publishing these photos without permission from the Nevada State Museum, but this opened a whole can of copyright law worms, and here’s why:
I took the photos of the stays, with permission, in a State institution. Photographers own the copyright (registered or not) to the photos they take. Where this gets fuzzy with museums is if the photo is taken of something in the public domain, or of currently copyrighted material. Extra fuzz is added by what the object is – that is, fashion designs and clothing cannot be copyrighted.
Therefore, do I have the right to publish on my blog photos that I took with the permission of the owners of the object, inside a state museum with free admission?
I italicized these words because they each lend a specific twist to this argument:
- I – I am the creator of the image, therefore I own the copyright.
- permission of the owners – items, even copyrighted ones, donated to a museum are owned by the museum but the museum does not hold the copyright.
- state – the objects inside the museum belong to the state, that is, they belong to the people, and are curated and maintained by state employees, paid with taxpayer dollars.
- free admission – when you enter a museum that charges admission, by the purchase of your ticket you are agreeing to their terms and services, which often include relinquishing the ability to take photos inside the museum, etc. With a museum that does not charge admission, particularly a state-run museum, you are not agreeing to these terms…it comes down to etiquette at that point. If the museum docent or curator asks you not to take photos, don’t do it, even if you are technically allowed to.
Now obviously I do not want to tread on the toes of the Marjorie Russell Museum’s staff, resulting in anger and not being invited back for more interesting lectures, but I think this is an important issue for everyone to understand: museums, bloggers, photographers, joe-schmoes.
Here are a few more copyright/ownership/museum things you ought to know, as it relates to costume and art blogging:
- Images and photographs of objects (gowns, let’s say) taken by the museum are copyrighted. We break copyright law every time we re-post an image of a dress from the Met or LACMA, or wherever, although museums have little ability to enforce this due to lack of funding, for one, and myriad other reasons relating to internet viral craziness.
- Photographs of two-dimensional works (art, music, etc.) that are in the public domain, taken as exact reproductions (no creativity involved, it’s just an image of a painting in a book, for instance), no matter who took the photo, are able to be used any way we like – they are not copyrighted, even if they are within a copyrighted book, museum catalog, etc. The key here is that the subject of the photograph is in the public domain, and the reproduction of it is “slavish.” This does not apply to photographs of three dimensional works. (Bridgeman Art Libaray v. Corel, 1999)
- Copyright law as it relates to taking photos inside museums outside the United States is completely different country-to-country, so make sure you know what’s what if you visit the V&A and expect to take photos of pretty dresses.
- Just to be very clear: public domain (expiration of copyright) in the USA comes about 95 years from the publication, or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter. That means everything published in the US prior to 1891 (at the time I wrote this article, 2011), and I mean everything, is in the public domain.
Your thoughts and comments are most welcome.