Source: Digital Art History

Considering Copyright Restrictions in the Practice of DAH

To introduce us to the field of Digital Art History JJ Bauer assigned our class several recently published “state of the practice” reports: “Transitioning to a Digital World” from the Kress Foundation, “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Art Historians” from Ithaka S+R, and the first issue of the International Journal for Digital Art History.  All three clearly positioned copyright restrictions as an obstacle to innovation in the field, but none of the reports went into depth on the topic, stating that it was too complex a problem to discuss in an overview.

One of the major areas where copyright is of concern is of course, publishing. Art historians have always had to deal with the prohibitively expensive costs of image permissions.  Traditionally museums have viewed these permissions as a source of revenue and museum copyright laws are often “obscure or ill-defined” [1] and difficult for scholars to navigate. Some institutions are working to change this model, for example the Getty with their Open Content Program allowing access to their collections and putting high resolution images in the public domain. The Ithaka article notes that others, such as the Met, are using databases like ARTstor to make their collections available for educational use.  However, these projects remain outliers in the field and the Kress report notes that the anticipated increase of online publishing will mean “the number of rights procurement issues skyrocket,”[2]  potentially stymying innovative digital art history projects.

Another area where copyright can be a challenge is in the personal image collections of art historians. The Ithaka article outlines the process most art historians go through of building a collection of images related to their research – beginning in graduate school and continuing throughout their career, the collections often becoming quite extensive, and potentially very valuable to the field. The report notes however that art historians are not known for their collaboration, and this reticence applies to their image collections – not often shared with other scholars. One reason might be that scholars are typically “unsure about the copyright status of their own collection,”[3] since downloads are usually mixed in with personal images, and organizing permissions is not usually a priority.

As we discussed these reports in class it seemed that most of us were surprised by the field’s apparent resistance to digital tools and innovations, and dismayed by the lack of collaboration traditionally accepted by art historians. As young scholars, and particularly in our group composed of students enrolled concurrently in art history and library/information science graduate programs, collaboration is practically a given, a natural solution to rapidly evolving disciplines. Yet as I thought about the issue of copyright and how it might relate to broader attitudes in the discipline, I found that I personally was still very traditional in my approach. For example, when preparing a presentation featuring the local artists we had worked with at the first Artists’ Studio Archives Workshop. I wanted to include images of the artists’ work. My first reaction was along the lines of “I might need to email each artist for permission, don’t have time for that, so maybe we shouldn’t include the images after all?” Thankfully we consulted JJ who pointed out that this would certainly fall under educational fair use since we were presenting to a group of art librarians hoping they might consider a similar initiative at their institution. Yet when creating this WordPress blog, my first concern again was image permissions, and another student voiced the same question. For now, I am using one of my own images, but it was revealing to me that even in an educational setting we simply assume copyright restrictions will limit us. Not an unfounded fear obviously: the first issue of DAH does not mention copyright (although it plans to address it in subsequent issues) except for a brief snippet where Michael Takeo Magruder discusses an innovative project created by his grad students, where “students also learned about copyright restrictions that are preventing a public showing of their coursework.”[4]

Ultimately it seems that things are moving towards more open access, less restrictions, and a better understanding of fair use. Even so traditional an institution as the CAA is leading the way with their “Fair Use Project.” The topic of copyright is one that I’m sure will come up frequently as we discuss digital art history, and it will also feature prominently in JJ’s other course this semester on visual resources. Both the Ithaka and Kress reports noted that visual resource curators are often well-versed in copyright laws and frequently advise their art historian colleagues on the topic. I have a lot to learn about the topic and find it fascinating, so perhaps I will revisit this later in the semester. I am particularly interested in what I see as the connection between copyright restriction and the larger issues in a field hesitant to change and risk-adverse in the digital realm.



[1] Matthew Long, Roger C. Schonfeld, “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Art Historians” (Ithaka S+R, 2014), p. 38.

[2] Diane M. Zorich, Transitioning to a Digital World: Art History, Its Research Centers, and Digital Scholarship. Report to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, May 2012, p. 32.

[3] Long, Schonfeld, “Changing Research Practices,” p. 24

[4] International Journal for Digital Art History, Issue #1, June 2015, “What is Digital Art History?”, p. 61.