Copyright in Photographs
Following a 1999 court decision in the USA challenging the existence of copyright in a photograph of a work of art (The Bridgeman Art Library -v- Corel Corporation 97 Civ.6232 (LAK) New York Southern District Court), the Museums Copyright Group set out to clarify the position for UK museums. The question is of considerable importance to museums. Revenue raised from reproduction fees and licensing is vital to museums to support their primary educational and curatorial objectives. Museums also rely on copyright in photographs of works of art to protect their collections from inaccurate reproduction and captioning. The decision appeared to threaten this position, prompting concern that museum photographs of out-of-copyright works of art would be vulnerable to piracy.
The Museums Copyright Group commissioned an in-depth report on the effect of Bridgeman -v- Corel on the museum sector. This concluded that:
Following the report the Museums Copyright Group has obtained an opinion from Jonathan Rayner James QC, a leading copyright specialist, who has no doubt that UK copyright law protects photographs of works of art:
Peter Wienand, the Museum Copyright Group's Chairman, and a partner at solicitors Farrer & Co, said:
Bridgeman -v- Corel
The Bridgeman Art Library (UK) brought an action against Corel Corporation for breach of copyright in the USA and lost. The crucial issue for museums was whether a photograph of a work of art is an original work and thus protected by copyright law. In the New York Southern District Court, Judge Kaplan, using UK law to reach his first decision, ruled that a photograph of an out-of-copyright artwork is not itself sufficiently original to have copyright protection.
Judge Kaplan was asked to review his decision and following re-argument reached the same conclusion a second time, this time based on American law but again citing British law.
The decision is not binding on courts in the UK, nor is it of overwhelming authority in the USA, but it has caused great concern amongst the museum community which relies on income received from licensing photographic reproductions of objects and works in their collections. Museums are also concerned that unauthorised copying will undermine the quality and integrity of image reproduction.