What are the economics of art reproductions?
August 14, 2011 8:25 PM   Subscribe

Museum stores and art print retailers (e.g. art.com) sell reproductions of art in many forms. These include archival-quality prints, postcards, coffee mugs, t-shirts and so on. But sometimes I see a painting in a museum and I can't find any reproductions of it. What determines which pieces of art are available for reproduction and at what price?

The following related questions might help to outline my ignorance on this subject:

[1] Some paintings and photographs are widely available in reproduction, while others seem not to be available anywhere. Why?

[2] For paintings no longer under copyright: are reproductions of these paintings still controlled by law? Or does the owner just have the right to (pragmatically) prevent people from copying the public domain image?

[3] Do museums who purchase a painting also acquire the copyright to the painting?

[4] When a museum store sells a print of a 19th century impressionist painting, is there an artist making royalties, or does the revenue all go to the museum? Does the museum have any exclusive right to reproductions of an out-of-copyright 19th century impressionist painting that it owns?

[5] Does there exist an open repository of high-resolution images of public domain artworks? If not, why not?
posted by cjh to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Plain old copyright explains a lot of this. If a work was published in 1923 or later, it may still be copyrighted. See http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/195_copr.html for a detailed look at what is still under copyright. The process of copyright determination is so fraught that even if a work is likely out of copyright, but a firm answer is unavailable, it gets treated like it is under copyright. The penalties are stiff and can involve jail time.

If a work is copyrighted, it is entirely up to the artist, his or her heirs, or whomever they sold the copyright to. They can refuse all reproductions, except those under "fair use." However, fair use typically rules out any good-sized print because the whole point of fair use is to not affect the commercial market for a work.

Note that the physical owner of the work may or may not be the same as the owner of the copyright: http://ecommons.cornell.edu/bitstream/1813/14142/2/Hirtle-Copyright_final_RGB_lowres-cover1.pdf So you can have a popular painting in a museum that has been banned from commercial reproduction by the artist who still holds the copyright.

I hope someone more learned than me can answer the questions about out-of-copyright works; though I recall hearing that museums could in fact ban individuals from taking photographs even for personal use.
posted by wnissen at 9:21 PM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Some Impressionists have very ggressive estates, such as Monet. Even if the work of art isn't under copyright, the photograph of that art work may be. High res images are all over, NYPL site for example, Yale foranother, but that doesn't mean you can download an image and start selling Tshirts. Many museums license through Bridgeman.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:53 PM on August 14, 2011

i also imagine popularity is a big factor in what gets reproduced or not...there was a big resurgance in the popularity of the neoimpressionists during the 90s (due in part to a number of very high profile auctions of a good many very important pieces), and then lots and lots of calendars and tote bags...
posted by sexyrobot at 11:05 PM on August 14, 2011

Best answer: My significant other was, till recently, head of the trading company of a major London gallery. Here are her answers.

1) It is determined by artist wishes (for works in copyright - artists include artists' estates, which can be more demanding than the living artist) and by demand. It is expensive to store prints etc so normally they are only reproduced if they are going to sell well.
2) The owner cannot prevent people from copying the public domain image He can prevent people from photographing them and often does. If it was photographed before the gallery/museum bought it then he is stuffed. This is a vexed question and has been tested in the US courts (by Bridgeman - they lost) but UK law might favour them.
3) No, unless they acquire them separately.
4) No. But they do have, usually, exclusive rights to photograph it, which they will try to enforce.
5) No but the BBC is/was working on one but it was controversial and the BBC has just been hit with huge cuts.
posted by TheRaven at 12:16 AM on August 15, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you, all, for your answers!

I think that the potential existence of an open repository is an interesting future possibilities. It would be of very general societal benefit if people all over the world were able to browse and print faithful copies of beautiful public domain artworks. As TheRaven intimates, there are probably some organized interests that oppose this development, though I'm not sure who they are.
posted by cjh at 1:37 PM on August 15, 2011

Response by poster: For anyone who is looking for a repository of high-resolution scans, I recently noticed that WikiMedia commons has a repository of more than 10,000 paintings, the vast majority donated by a group known as DirectMedia .

This is, IMO, very great.
posted by cjh at 7:31 PM on January 14, 2012

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