Cultural Institutions and Digital Copying of Artwork- Survey of Indigenous Community

Online access and digital communication technologies mean that museums, galleries, libraries and archives can now offer improved public access to the cultural material held in their collections.  However it also creates a possible risk of copyright infringement or the inappropriate use of the material. Researchers at the University of Melbourne Law Schooli are currently investigating the impact of digital reproduction on Australian cultural institutions and creators.  The aim is to try to support cultural institutions with the appropriate distribution of their collections in the digital environment.  As part of the project, researchers worked with the Arts Law Centre of Australia to undertake a survey of Indigenous Community Art Centres.  The survey asked about the attitudes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creators to the digital reproduction and use of their work by cultural institutions.

Surveys were distributed to a number of Indigenous Community Art Centres around Australia and the replies were collected by September 2008.  The majority of responses received suggested that artists were happy for their work to be reproduced and used by a collecting institution for internal administrative purposes.  However, if material was being reproduced to publicise the institution or to generate any form or revenue, that creators should receive additional payment.  But responses differed regarding the public online delivery of digital reproductions.  Half of the respondents believed that cultural institutions should not be required to make an additional payment to creators to make material available online, while the remaining responses were equally divided between those who felt cultural institutions should not make digital copies available online at all and those who considered that it should only be done if the creator received an extra payment.

Most of those who responded to the survey highlighted the importance of creators retaining control over how their work was used.  They all felt that creators should be able to stop an institution making a digital reproduction of a work for any reason.  This could include: for reasons of cultural sensitivity or death; if the proposed use would compromise the artwork in some way; if the story/painting is sensitive, secret or sacred; or if inheritors had not provided consent.  While some respondents recognised that it could be onerous for cultural institutions to have to seek permission for every single use of material held in their collections, it was considered important that creators were able to apply different usage conditions in different circumstances.

Overall the centres that responded to the survey confirmed the importance of Indigenous creators retaining control over how digital reproductions of their work are used in cultural institutions.  One respondent explained that if artists know where their work is being used and how, they remain ‘industry aware and empowered’.  Another noted that it was important that public institutions are seen to exercise ethical and transparent practices in this area.

The survey has provided important input into the wider research project.  While both Indigenous and non-indigenous creators interviewed for the project stated the importance of being consulted about the use of their material, the survey responses suggest that for Indigenous creators the digital reproduction of material raises additional concerns about control, particularly as cultural issues other than copyright may also have a strong influence on how their material can be used.  The information collected in this survey now forms part of the results of the overall research project.  The project aims to ensure that appropriate laws, policies and practices are put in place to allow digital access to Australian cultural collections while at the same time protecting the interests of creators and copyright owners whose work is held in those collections, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.

The researchers would like to thank the Arts Law Centre of Australia and the Indigenous Community Art Centres that contributed to the survey for the generous donation of their time and expertise.  Further information about this project can be obtained from the Centre for Media and Communications Law ( or by contacting the researchers at [email protected]

Robin Wright is a research fellow at the Centre for Media & Communications Law at the University of Melbourne.


i Cultural Collections, Creators and Copyright: Museums, galleries, Libraries and Archives and Australia’s Digital Heritage.  Project funded by the Australian Research Council conducted by the Centre for Media and Communications Law and the Intellectual Property Research Institute of Australia in partnership with a number of leading Australian cultural sector bodies.

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