More on Photography in Museum: The Question of Reproduction

photography in museums
Visitors taking photos at the John Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (@Julia Shuvalova, 2008)

It looks like more and more art depositories are beginning to ask visitors to fill in a photography in museum permission form. I do think that this is likely to be requested in a smaller gallery rather than in a big one. Imagine the huge queue of tourists at the British Museum, all filling out permission forms…

As I stated before, I do not see any problem with restricting photography in museum at the special exhibitions, and then there is a tricky situation with the works of art by contemporary artists, as not only is there a “regular” sort of copyright which we all acquire by virtue of producing a work of art, but there is also a 70-years copyright restriction. On the other hand, those works of art can often be found online anyway, so the first question is whether the artist and the art depository by restricting the permission actually end up pushing away the benefits of being directly credited in the image?

Another problem is how to define the concept of “reproduction”. Indeed, if I take a photo of a painting (sculpture, photograph by the like of Man Ray, etc), I am effectively “reproducing” it. Yet again, there are so many reproductions of these works of art on the Internet, and services like not only provide links to a large number of online images, they also produce quality prints. I never ordered any posters from the mentioned site or others, but it would certainly be interesting to leverage the number of prints bought by those who visited, say, the National Gallery shop online or in person, and the number of prints bought through a poster-making website.

I must admit I never looked into the relationship between and any of the art depositories, whose works they print: perhaps, there is a sale commission agreement, or some such. Whatever is the answer, this is clearly the case of an image being reproduced for commercial purposes. How is this different from uploading a photo to a blog or to Flickr? As far as Flickr goes, this is currently a non-commercial service, so “reproducing” an image there should not be constituted as a commercial move.

Uploading a photo to a blog can be more complicated to an extent, if the publisher uses AdSense. My personal view, however, going off the fact that many of the images are available online via different resources, is that if the publisher intends to earn their income by “reproducing” the works of art on their blog, there is little need for them to visit a museum and twist the brains over photography permission. They can find very many images on the web, or they can scan “reproductions” from a book.

Two things may be kept in mind. First, art depositories need to assume that people who do fill out a photography permission form may be intending to upload photos to the web: this constitutes the “personal use” for them. This intention cannot be denied simply because photosharing services are one of the most powerful communicative tools online at the moment, and it would be a pity to see the depository restricting this. Rather, a depository should have the means to see where people upload photos taken in the depository, and how these are being used. The question of an image credit is usually not disputed by the online community, but there is nothing wrong about reinforcing it.

And the second thing is that an art depository that asks for a photography in museum permission form to be filled in, can in fact include in it a question about how the visitor is planning on using the photo. Better yet, visitors can be asked to apply for a permission online, and if they are an online publisher (i.e. blogger or website owner), the depository will be able to evaluate the resource prior to giving a consent to photography. Needless to say, such requirement would have to be very clearly displayed on the website or in the gallery.

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