Article 14 – Works of visual art in the public domain – is one of the very few unambiguously good provisions of the new EU copyright directive. The article is intended to ensure that (digital) reproductions of public domain works cannot be protected by exclusive rights, and as a result, taken out of the public domain. This legislative intervention comes in response to the relatively widespread practice of museums in claiming exclusive rights of digital reproductions of public domain works that they have in their collections and which they make available to the public. In practice this has already led to Spanish Museums claiming copyright over paintings by Dutch masters who have been dead for 350 years, and German museums suing Wikipedia for hosting reproductions of public domain works as part of Wikimedia Commons.
What is in the public domain in analogue form is [not always] in the public domain in digital form
While at first glance it seems counterintuitive that a museum should be able to control the rights for artworks of long dead artists, such claims do have a basis in existing law. In general, for a work to be protected under copyright it needs to show “the author’s own intellectual creation.” However, there is another category of copyright-like rights (also called “related rights”) that exist in a number of EU Member States. These related rights schemes grant exclusive rights to the creators of photographic works that do not meet the originality criterion necessary to receive copyright protection (See this 2015 study by Thomas Margoni for more details). Related rights arise even when a reproduction is nothing more than an exact photographic copy of a work. Where copyright protects original artworks, these related rights protect simple copies.
As museums have started to make works in their collections available online, the practice of relying on related rights to restrict the re-use of non-original reproductions of public domain works has become controversial. Both the Public Domain Manifesto and the Europeana Public Domain Charter demanded that what is in the public domain in analogue form must stay in the public domain in digital form (as does our own policy recommendation #5). While the overall majority of museums have always acted in the spirit of expanding the public domain, and have made reproductions of public domain works available without any restrictions on re-use, a small number of museums from Member States that allow the protection of non-original reproductions of public domain works continue to claim rights over such reproductions. Continue reading