Northern Editions – who owns copyright in museum exhibits?

By Arts Law Centre of Australia on 15th February 2012

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Photo by Jacqueline Gribbin, reproduced courtesy of Northern Editions.

Northern Editions (http://www.northerneditions.com.au/) is a print-making workshop located at the Charles Darwin University in Darwin. Since 1993, Northern Editions has been collaborating with artists to produce limited edition fine art prints and conducting printmaking workshops on campus and in remote communities with artists from across the Top End, Central Australia, the Kimberley and Queensland.

In 2011, Northern Editions contacted Arts Law regarding its Fishy Relief project, a community based project involving fish relief blocks created by Gilbert Whitley, a British-born Australian ichthyologist and malacologist who was Curator of Fishes at the Australian Museum in Sydney between 1940 and 1964. The relief blocks were made by Whitley during that period to illustrate short books, many of which were published by the Museum. Following Whitley’s death in 1975, the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory had acquired the blocks from the Australian Museum.

Northern Editions’ project involved a number of elements. First, they wanted to invite artists to use the blocks as a starting point to create new prints. Second, they wanted to conduct printing workshops using the blocks with children in local schools.

Northern Editions wanted to know if they needed copyright permission for this project. Arts Law confirmed that while the Darwin Museum owned the physical blocks, the copyright was owned by the Australian Museum because Whitley had created the blocks in the course of his employment with the Museum – that is, as part of his job as Curator of Fishes. In order to use the blocks to reproduce fish images, Northern Editions needed the permission of the copyright owner.  Armed with this information, Northern Editions was able to negotiate with each museum obtaining permission from the Australian Museum to use the blocks and the agreement of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory to loan the blocks until the completion of the project.

The Fishy Relief workshops were successfully conducted with year 9 students from Darwin Middle School, teacher Sue Loeliger, local artist and papermaker Winsome Jobling and Northern Editions senior printmaker Jacqueline Gribbin. The exhibition ran throughout the Darwin Festival (http://www.darwinfestival.org.au/2011-program/fishy-relief/) in August-September 2011.

In this case study, understanding copyright ownership was essential to identifying the relevant stakeholders. Their cooperation was critical to the successful implementation of the project. Arts Law helped Northern Editions understand who they had to approach and what to ask for.

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