No Known Copyright Restrictions

I can post this image, just as it is, because the Smithsonian recently published a group of photographs from their archives on flickr. They did this while recognizing the fact that these images have no copyright restrictions. This may seem obvious to anyone familiar with copyright laws and the notion of the “public domain”, but it indicates a grand stride in the museological realm. Those who have never worked in or with a mainstream American museum may not realize how many hours go into the credit lines audiences typically don’t even notice beneath images from an exhibition or from the collection. If you ever wonder why a museum doesn’t have more of its collection or exhibition images online, it may be at least partially due to fear of copyright law, or perhaps simply a fear of losing authority over their objects.

The Smithsonian’s project is revolutionary because it admits that there are works in the public domain, and that the museum is willing to relinquish their authority over those images. Authority is often the matter at hand in the museum, perhaps even replacing the financial values found within for-profit institutions. While museums do have authority as serious research institutions, there can also be another dimension to that authority that creates friction in the age of the Internet, where information exchange is at the forefront of daily life. Copyright cannot maintain its ultimate rule the way it did in the world of exclusively print media. Museums often forgo Internet advances such as providing digital versions of their collections, podcasting, blogging and social networking for fear of losing their audiences once the images of their objects escape their control. This is clearly irrational and prohibitive.

Are there really people who would prefer to look only at digital images online over seeing the actual art/historical/scientific object? I find this doubtful. The Internet is valued for its international information exchange, making small museums that would otherwise only exist as resources to their immediate communities suddenly become valuable to the country or world at-large through their online presences. Shouldn’t this be what every museum strives for, rather than being overprotective of the digital reproductions of their objects?

And yet, most institutions do not put all of their collections online. Clearly there are complications such as artists’ rights and donors’ wishes, but what about all of the works already in the public domain- why don’t we see them on more museum websites?

At Museums and the Web this year (debatably the most progressive North American museum conference on integrating web applications with museum practice), the hot topic was the mash-up.

This is a mash up of The Muppets and Pulp Fiction:

This is a mash-up of light sabers and The Princess Bride (via Boing Boing):

But the mashing up being talked about at Museums and the Web 2008 by innovators Sebastian Chan and Frankie Roberto was about the possibility of mashing up all museum objects (“all” as in every museum object that exists) into a single web resource, in order to make those objects and their information more accessible to the world (I suggest reading their papers, which are fully available here and here). While the Smithsonian’s flickr site is just one museum, it signals a movement towards sharing information and authority on a universal web resource not managed by the museum providing the images. This is one of the largest steps I have seen towards the grand resource Chan’s and Frankie’s papers imply as a possibility; it is a welcome sign of hope, as I continue blogging in a city where few museums have substantial portions of their collections online*.

*The Wing Luke and the Burke have the largest amount currently online of which I am aware. The Henry also has a project in the works, though I am not clear on the breadth of the final result that will be available to the public.

(link to Smithsonian story via Boing Boing)