Control of Museum Art Images: The Reach and Limits of Copyright and Licensing

20 Pages Posted: 18 Feb 2020

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: January 20, 2010


Many museums and art libraries have digitized their collections of artworks. Digital imaging capabilities represent a significant development in the academic study of art, and they enhance the availability of art images to the public at large. The possible uses of these images are likewise broad. Many of these uses, however, are potentially defined by copyright law or by license agreements imposed by some museums and libraries that attempt to define allowable uses. Often, these terms and conditions will mean that an online image is not truly available for many purposes, including publication in the context of research or simple enjoyment. Not only do these terms and conditions restrict uses, they also have dubious legal standing after the Bridgeman case. This paper examines the legal premises behind claiming copyright in art images and the ability to impose license restrictions on their use.

This paper is one outcome of a study of museum licensing practices funded by The Samuel H. Kress Foundation. This paper is principally an introduction to the relevant law in the United States and a survey of examples of museum licenses. The project is in its early stages, with the expectation that later studies will expand on this introduction and provide greater analysis of the legal complications of copyright, the public domain, and the reach of license agreements as a means for controlling the use of artwork and potentially any other works, whether or not they fall within the scope of copyright protection.

This paper was prepared for the Proceedings of the Annual Congress of the International Association for the Advancement of Teaching and Research in Intellectual Property (ATRIP), held in Vilnius, Lithuania on 13-16 September 2009.

Keywords: copyright, licensing, museums, art

Suggested Citation

Brown, Melissa A. and Crews, Kenneth D., Control of Museum Art Images: The Reach and Limits of Copyright and Licensing (January 20, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Melissa A. Brown

Columbia University ( email )

3022 Broadway
New York, NY 10027
United States

Kenneth D. Crews (Contact Author)

Columbia University ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10027
United States
310-556-4660 (Phone)


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