When it comes to progressive, public-friendly copyright policies, few art museums can match The Brooklyn Museum. In 2004, it was the first art museum to adopt a Creative Commons license, allowing any non-commercial copying of any image in which the museum holds the copyright. In 2008, it was the third institution to join the Flickr Commons, making available high-resolution images of Public Domain artworks from its collection. Last week, the musuem published the detailed copyright status of every image in its online collection--that's over 12,000 artworks--and made this information available through its API so that anyone can easily cross-reference the data with their own copyright research. It also switched to a less restrictive Creative Commons license, allowing non-commercial remixing as well.
The museum deserves credit just for the effort required to determine the copyright status of 12,000 works--a complicated, painstaking process that took Chief of Technology Shelley Bernstein, Head of Digital Collections and Services Deborah Wythe and a team of interns over two years to complete. "Identifying what is actually under copyright was one of the most challenging parts of the project," said Wythe, who, for artworks that were under copyright, contacted every artist (or artist's heir) she and her team could locate to get permission to display full-size, high-resolution images of their work on the museum's site. Images that were no longer under copyright were listed as "no known copyright." (Example.)
More impressive than the amount of labor that went into the project is the fact that the Brooklyn Museum was willing to go down this road in the first place. It is easier and safer, from a liability perspective, to only display thumbnails of artworks and to put the onus of clearing copyrights in specific images on members of the public who seek to use them. But it is more consistent with a non-profit cultural institution's public mission to make its collection as accessible as possible, as transparently as possible.
"Participating in Flickr Commons, following the Public Domain conversations on Wikimedia, and generally being in touch with the huge community of people who want images made us realize that we could be better community members by being as honest and open as we can be about what we know about our images," said Wythe.
Likewise, despite the common (though questionable) view that it's more lucrative for museums to assert as much control over their "intellectual property" as copyright law allows, the Brooklyn Museum apparently understands that its mission is more effectively fulfilled, and the public better served, when the museum allows its collection to be reproduced, remixed and disseminated in as many (non-commercial) ways as possible.
"I've come to realize that there has to be a lot of give and take with a project like this," said Bernstein. "Copyright is complicated, so we have to figure out a way to do as much as we can and clarify as much as we can to the visitors of our website, while still erring on the side of caution. While that's not ideal and we'd love things to be much simpler and clear-cut, we hope it's a start and a step in the right direction."
It's also a step ahead of most.
UPDATE: As Deborah Wythe points out in the comments below, the museum is still in the process of locating and contacting artists for permission to display their work. So far, the museum has received non-exclusive licenses for 32% of the 1061 online works that need to be cleared.