Museum Policies and Art Images: Conflicting Objectives and Copyright Overreaching

40 Pages Posted: 18 Feb 2020

Date Written: July 1, 2012


Museums face steady demand for images of artworks from their collections, and they typically provide a service of making and delivering high-resolution images of art. The images are often intellectually essential for scholarly study and teaching, and they are sometimes economically valuable for production of the coffee mugs and note cards sold in museum shops and elsewhere. Though the law is unclear regarding copyright protection afforded to such images, many museum policies and licenses encumber the use of art images with contractual terms and license restrictions often aimed at raising revenue or protecting the integrity of the art. This article explores the extent to which museums have strained the limits of copyright claims and indeed have restructured concepts of ownership and control in ways that curtail the availability and use of art images far beyond anything that may be grounded in the law. This article examines the relevant copyright law applicable to the making and use of reproductions of art images, and it identifies the challenging pressures that museums face as they strive to make policies in the context of law but that also serve the multiple competing interests coming to bear on officials and decision makers inside museums. The article analyzes selected policies from major museums and provides an original construct of forms of “overreaching” that often appear in written standards offered by museums for the use of images. The analysis of policies also demonstrates that museums have choices in the shaping of institutional policies, and that breaking away from familiar policy terms can sometimes better serve institutional and public interests.

Keywords: copyright, art, museums, policies, fair use

Suggested Citation

Crews, Kenneth D., Museum Policies and Art Images: Conflicting Objectives and Copyright Overreaching (July 1, 2012). Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal, Vol. 22, p. 795, 2012, Available at SSRN:

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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