The Google Art Project, copyright and the future of museums

By Yani Silvana

The Google Art Project (GAP) is a new development in the field of online museums. Unlike, for example, websites of individual museums, it allows users to view collections of visual artworks from galleries around the world on one online platform, searching by artist, artwork or collection. GAP raises important concerns for arts administrators; however as it is only in its infancy there is scope for the issues to be resolved over time and for GAP to make an enduring contribution to public access to, and education about, art. This article will focus primarily on copyright issues, as among their duties arts administrators may be expected to ensure that copyright in the works shown in their museums is protected. This article will also discuss associated issues that arts administrators may have with GAP’s representation of global cultural property and with how GAP could affect the future of real-life museums. Concern regarding these latter issues falls within the role of arts administrators in supporting community education about the arts and facilitating public access to museums and ensuring their sustainability. As Kenneth Crews states: ‘Museums have a central mission to collect and preserve art and other cultural works, and to make them available to the public’.

GAP background

GAP launched in London on 1 February 2011, with 17 participating museums from around the world. These included the New York Museum of Modern Art, London’s Tate Britain and St Petersburg’s Hermitage. As at May 2012, GAP had expanded to include 151 museums and images of more than 32 000 artworks from 40 countries, in disciplines as diverse as architecture, sculpture, painting, drawing, as well as religious artefacts and manuscripts. It is available in 18 languages, including English, Bahasa, French and Polish.

Selected artworks are reproduced in high definition; each museum also chooses one artwork to be reproduced in super-high-definition gigapixels. In addition to scrolling through the artworks and examining them in close detail in a way that would not be possible in the actual museum, viewers can amble through virtual tours of the museum, create and share their own galleries, perform research and compare artworks from different galleries around the world that they may never have the opportunity to visit in person.

Google has indicated that the project is about creating a resource, not making money. Amit Sood, head of GAP, reinforced that the point of GAP is to make museums and artworks accessible to everyone: ‘These works of art are part of our shared culture … Anyone should be able to see them, regardless of where they live or how much money they have …’. There is no charge to users of GAP, nor does Google charge museums to participate.

Copyright issues

Copyright laws vary throughout the world; however in Australia and the USA at least, copyright protects an artist’s work (for artworks post–Australia/US Free Trade Agreement, 2005) for the lifetime of the artist plus 70 years. This means that there are immediately issues in reproducing online any of these artworks. This includes most modern art. Given that copyright does not necessarily belong to the artist once their work is sold, it can be difficult to find out who owns the copyright in order to obtain permission for its inclusion in GAP. The copyright owner, if located, may want to be paid for the publication of the artwork online, which could be costly even for a single artwork. While some living artists, such as Chris Ofili, who gave the Tate Britain permission to include his work in GAP, have been keen, museums have mostly chosen to include artworks on GAP that are out of copyright, thereby short-circuiting any copyright issues. Although this still leaves a huge and diverse range of artwork available to be viewed on GAP, it raises the issue of how representative of the world’s cultural property GAP can be, which will be discussed further below.

One example of a complicated copyright situation involves the works of Picasso, who died in 1973 after a career spanning close to 80 years. For artists such as Picasso, copyright protects the works for the duration of the artist’s life plus 70 years. Consequently, therefore his work will not be in the public domain until 2043. Kenneth Crews suggests that it is difficult to know which works are in the public domain and which are not. In such cases GAP could run the risk of infringing copyright. And for those artworks still in copyright, ‘the role of “artist” is … played by heirs, executors, lawyers, and agents whose views may not match the motivations of the original creator of the aesthetic masterpiece’. In other words, Picasso’s next of kin and those who represent them have control over the use of his work. The Museum of Modern Art in New York may own the painting ‘Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon’, but Picasso’s family owns the copyright. We cannot know whether Picasso would want his works included in GAP, but the Picasso estate has made it clear that for those images in which it holds copyright, only ‘it can grant permission for inclusion’ in GAP. Not surprisingly, as yet no Picassos are included.

Furthermore, the Artists Rights Society, the company that manages the copyright in works belonging to Picasso’s estate, is not averse to the works being included on the site, but says that Google will not negotiate with them. Google’s approach has been to rely on the museums themselves to seek copyright clearance, believing that ‘they are in the best position to assess rights status and we are happy to work with them to address any concerns’. Theodore Feder, president of the Artists Rights Society believes that ‘Google is placing the burden and onus on the museum, which is unfair to them and unfair to the artists’. In a sense Google is not doing itself any favours here, as their position causes a significant stretch on museum resources, and therefore places limitations on GAP. Perhaps Roberta Smith is right when she states: ‘At some point some museum somewhere is going to tackle the Picasso rights problem.’

Given copyright complexities, and the time and resources that would disappear into seeking out copyright clearances, as well as potentially having to pay high reproduction fees, it is understandable that most museums are only including public domain artworks on GAP. As Lara Ortega states: ‘While this is not thought to decrease the actual quality of a digital collection, it may very well change the substantive content of such a collection’.

The virtual tour aspect of GAP, which enables viewers to explore the museum online, raises additional copyright issues, as some artworks that would normally appear on the tour may not be in the public domain. Google’s solution has been to either avoid photographing or to blur out these artworks: although viewers can see that the artwork is present, it blurs as they approach it. Some may find the GAP virtual tours hard to negotiate and prefer to simply view the individual paintings. While it is an aspect of GAP that Google will be able to improve over time, it may be limited by the copyright issues.

Museums may also be concerned about unauthorised use of the photographic images that they have placed on GAP as museums generally hold the copyright in these. Like the virtual tour images, blurring of sections of the super-high-resolution reproductions has been used to discourage copyright infringement by reproducing the images from GAP. Although Berwick suggests that those wanting to copy artworks would not be so easily put off, she does not give any explanation as to how this may be achieved. Although users can store (in their own GAP galleries), share (via social media) and comment on the images, it is not possible to save images to their own computers, or even to print them from GAP, so this is less of an issue.

Global cultural heritage

One understandable concern among arts administrators as a result of the copyright issues discussed above may be that GAP is not representative of global cultural heritage. Firstly, there is the issue of entire museums not being represented. Notable omissions to date include the Louvre and Pompidou Centre (Paris) and the Prado (Madrid). In addition, whole countries, such as Ireland, are missing, though the Irish Museum of Modern Art hopes to join eventually.

Secondly, almost no modern art will be included if copyright permission cannot be obtained (and paid for). Nancy Proctor quotes Jane Burton, creative director of Tate Media: ‘“a large tranche of twentieth-century modernism will be absent” because of high reproduction fees or other obstacles’. Important artists such as Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp (and Picasso as discussed earlier) are completely missing from GAP.

Nancy Proctor also says that ‘…working with museums is notoriously slow and difficult…’, in which case it is quite remarkable that Google has so far succeeded in creating partnerships with 151 museums and including so many artworks in less than two years. This suggests that in spite of Proctor’s comment above, it can be done, and that GAP’s future is bright.

If so much can be achieved in such a short time, in spite of all the difficulties outlined, there is hope for further diversity and greater inclusiveness from GAP. Although in the months after GAP was launched some people were wondering about Google’s long-term involvement in the project and the resources they were prepared to devote to it, their track record so far suggests commitment. As Proctor says, ‘the concept has been proven’ and she ‘predicts that the scholarly and experiential power of this kind of presentation will prove irresistible to museums in their next generation on the web’.

Viability and future of museums

Arts administrators may be concerned that platforms like GAP could affect the survival of their institutions, both in financial terms and in terms of relevance. Some museums may worry that making high-resolution digital images of artworks available online will detract from sales of items such as posters, crockery and scarves in their museum shops. As Kenneth Crews states ‘[m]useums often strive to control access and use of their collections, because they need to sell or license the uses’. Such institutions may not be as keen to ‘share’ as others, and may deny access to GAP. However, one could question whether there is any real comparison between examining artworks online and buying souvenirs, gifts or reproductions to enjoy at home and there is little evidence from museums claiming that sales in their shops have diminished as a result of GAP.

Another possible concern of arts administrators may be that people will stop at visiting the website, and not proceed to pay the entry fee and visit the actual museum. As well as being a financial issue, this could challenge the relevance of traditional museums. Nancy Proctor asks the question: ‘Could the Google Art Project even make the museum irrelevant as a place to see art?’ She then notes that ‘Nicolas Serota…pointed out that every communications technology introduced so far—printing, photography, television, the internet—has failed to stem the rising tide of visitors to museums. She suggests that rather than detracting from the actual museum, GAP ‘underscore[s] and enhance[s] the importance and centrality of the original object and its context in the museum’. Perhaps Eliza Murphy is right when she says: ‘even with the super high-resolution and zooming capabilities in the Google Art Project’s version of “Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles”, it did not evoke the same emotions I felt as a student in Amsterdam standing in front of the painting for the first time … maybe we cannot fully comprehend the magnitude and grandeur of a work of art until we face it in person’. While GAP is a great substitute when unable to visit an actual gallery, it may well serve to whet the appetite for seeing the actual artwork. In addition, GAP seems to have contributed to an increase in traffic on MOMA’s website, and according to MIT Communications Forum ‘museum crowds are growing along with web access to museum collections’. GAP also raises the question of the future relevance of museums themselves and the future of their websites. Traditional museums have never really been known for having ‘conversations’ with each other. For example, although many museums show some of their collections on their websites, they do not necessarily link to the websites of other museums exhibiting related paintings a student might benefit from. Steven Zucker and Beth Harris (from the online Khan Academy, notably backed by Bill Gates and Google) cite the example of three different canvases painted by Van Gogh of his bedroom, each owned by a different museum, none of which links to the others’ websites. They point out the contrast with GAP, which allows users to create their own galleries, and in this case would allow the student to place all three images side by side for comparison and study.

Rather than seeing GAP as a threat to museums, Zucker and Harris see a huge potential for education that museums could tap into. They seem to suggest that GAP is demonstrating to museums a possible way forward in making both their collections and their knowledge more broadly accessible, and retaining their relevance in the future: ‘The Google Art Project shows what can happen when museums work in parallel; now imagine what could happen if museums choose to work together.’

GAP does raise some concerns for art administrators, most particularly in relation to the difficulties in ascertaining and clearing copyright and the time and financial costs involved in this for museums. Additionally, copyright restrictions potentially inhibit the ability of GAP to provide a representative picture of the world’s cultural heritage. Museums may also be concerned that easy online access to artwork will affect their financial bottom line and their continuing relevance to the public. However, GAP has been in existence for less than two years and in that time has already expanded and improved significantly. Further development has the potential to result in gradual resolution of the issues outlined above, with the result that GAP could foster the beginning of a new era for museums, in which they work together to make art more accessible, enriching the experience for all people with an interest in art.

Upon completing her undergraduate degree in Communications, Yani Silvana entered the book publishing industry, working as a publicist on educational books. After a brief foray into yoga teaching, she returned to publishing, completing a Diploma in Book Editing and Publishing and pursuing a career as an editor. She has since worked both freelance and in-house for a broad range of publishers for more than 25 years. During that time she has also pursued her passion for art, studying at TAFE and university in Brisbane before returning with her daughter to live in Sydney. In 2012, seeking a career change, she began a Masters in Arts Administration at UNSW.

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