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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Freedom for IP goes to the museum (and gets in trouble)

In honor of their new expansion, the Seattle Art Museum was open all night last Saturday. Freedom for IP and friends decided to visit in the wee hours of the morning. The new expansion is beautiful and huge, and we all soon lost each other. Brian got out his phone to call me and find out where I was, and was promptly admonished by a guard for taking pictures of copyrighted works. The guards had clearly been put on high alert to watch out for camera phones.The exchange went something like this:

"you can't take pictures here"
"I wasn't... why can't I take pictures here?"
"these works are under copyright, we do not have permissions to allow people to take pictures"
(Brian was in a section of 16th - 18th century paintings)
"this artwork?" *looks at plaque* "from 1623, is under copyright?"
"I'm afraid so"
"This work couldn't possibly be under copyright, all work created before 1923 is in the public domain"
"I'm sorry, you're just not allowed to take pictures"
"why? is there anyone who can explain this policy to me?"
"just a moment, I'll find a manager for you"
At this point a series of badged people had a little pow-wow and another one walked over. I heard Brian's voice, and came over and Brian and I had a short discussion about the artistic value of the wall behind the painting, and whether that might be copyrightable.
"It's a copyright issue, we can't give you permission to take pictures"
"did I sign a contract giving away my rights to take pictures of things in the public domain?"
*guard looks confused*
"I'll find you the contact number of someone who can better explain our policy"
"great!"
Then the guard disappeared for several minutes and came back with the general information line for the art museum. Brian called the number, worked through a maze of automated directories, having nothing to do with copyrights, contracts, or rights of publicity. Brian then proceeded to go around taking pictures with his camera phone until it died, and then he pretended to take pictures until another guard stopped him.
"you can't take pictures here"
"why can't I take pictures? These works are in the public domain! Am I harming anything? I'm not using a flash."
"the artist haven't given rights for individuals to take pictures"
"do you have a list of what rights the artists have given?"
"hmm... I don't know"
The guard went and got the same supervisor Brian spoke to earlier.
"your number didn't work"
"oh, you should call back during normal business hours, there's no one present here who can answer your questions"
We were then encouraged to end our viewing experience after another of our friends managed to climb inside a modern piece that looked like a shiny coat without actually touching it.

I think that experience was a representation of everything that is wrong with our copyright system. The people who are enforcing it don't understand it. It is used as a catch-all prohibition for anything that people want to stop you from doing with art. The people making the policies aren't accessible and know nothing about open content models. Real people are stopped from sharing photos of art that they find moving because of guards enforcing a non-existant copyright!

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