ABA Journal

It’s Google, but is it art? Museums mull opening their galleries to digitization

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Troy Klyber, IP manager for the Art Institute
of Chicago, sees participation in Google’s
Art Project as a means to further its public
mission. Photo by Saverio Truglia.

Google’s mission to digitize artwork from around the world is testing the bounds of copyright protection and the fairness of licensing contracts.

Launched in February 2011, the Google Art Project provides access to more than 30,000 high-resolution images of paintings, sculptures and photographs from more than 180 museums and institutions in 40 countries, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the de Young Museum in San Francisco and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

With the ability to zoom in to see precision details up close, the Google Art Project was designed to make artwork more widely available and to promote popular interest. But museums, while appreciating the attention, are wary about which art they share. And their lawyers are treading carefully.

Troy Klyber, intellectual property manager at the Art Institute of Chicago, saw participating in the Google Art Project as a way to fulfill the museum’s mission, which is to share its works with the public. But because ownership of an art object doesn’t necessarily include ownership of the object’s copyright, the Art Institute could only include works for which it had been assigned the copyright through gift or contract, or works by artists dead for more than 70 years. As a result, the Google Art Project features fewer examples of modern and contemporary art.

“Our selection was designed to avoid disputes,” Klyber says of the works included in the project. After analyzing the copyright status of its collections, the Art Institute sought copyright permissions from certain contemporary and modern artists and their estates. Some granted permission, but others feared commercial interests misusing high-quality images online.

“We ended up with a pretty good assortment of works that represent the collection,” Klyber says.

Click here to read the rest of “It’s Google, but is it art?” from the February issue of the ABA Journal.

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