art as intellectual property

Emboldened by the fact that Tongues of Fire is downloaded from this site 25 times a week, I’m thinking of putting another, more ambitious work of fiction online. I’d like to illustrate it and otherwise add elements of “multimedia.” The perfect illustrations (since I cannot make my own) would be certain Old Master drawings by the likes of Guercino and Domenichino. Unfortunately, there are remarkably few such images online, because the owners of the originals tend to refuse permission to disseminate them electronically. Even public museums usually block people from photographing their collections unless we agree not to sell or give away the images we make. For the same reason, the countless beautiful illustrations in my University’s Art Library are not to be copied. I have been looking at old books–volumes published more than 75 years ago–that reproduce baroque master drawings. They contain many beautiful images that would fit my purposes perfectly. The books are in the public domain, but what about their illustrations? Does the Queen of England own the rights to a photograph taken of one of her drawings in 1900? What about an etching or mezzotint that reproduces a drawing that she owns?

I am trying to obey the law, but only because I don’t want to encounter problems later. From a moral point of view, I find it outrageous that owners of beautiful objects, especially public libraries and museums, should prevent their electronic reproduction. As a result of this short-sighted and selfish policy, an extraordinarily small proportion of great art can be found on the World Wide Web.

2 thoughts on “art as intellectual property

  1. Ryan

    Couldn’t this argument also be used for anything considered an art? What about music? Shouldn’t beautiful music be freely distributed? Beautiful movies perhaps?

  2. Peter Levine


    I should have clarified that I was talking about art by people who are long dead. With that disclaimer, the answer is yes: I think that beautiful music and movies from the distant past should circulate freely.

    By the way, if you are a private citizen, you have no obligation to let people make copies of objects you own, because you have no duty to let them enter your space or handle your property. It may be nice to allow access, but it isn’t obligatory. However, if you run a public museum and you allow people to see and photograph the collection, then you shouldn’t use contract law to prevent reproductions from being more broadly disseminated. On the contrary, you should encourage broad access by putting high-quality digital photos online and waiving most forms of copyright protection.

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