Image rights and wrongs

As PEM’s Digital Asset Manager, an important part of my job is to spread knowledge of copyright rules and implement best practices for digital assets at the museum. So I was thrilled to have such excellent attendance across many departments for my recent presentation to our Social Media Action Committee.

Copyright is a subject that raises a lot of questions, especially in this digital age. There are over 360 pages of laws on the books going back to Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, and yet these laws can be ambiguous and difficult to interpret or enforce. But with a little knowledge of how we negotiate copyright in the 21st century, we can respect artists’ copyright, protect the museum from liability and still draw from a rich pool of digital assets.



 There are distinct differences between a 20th century and 21st century mindset when it comes to copyright. The 20th century was characterized by multinational corporations and cultural institutions alike, trying desperately to control their content. They hid their intellectual property in “walled gardens” like ArtStor or iTunes, where only subscribers could access it, and hobbled the files with web viewers and DRM to prevent dissemination. When rightsholders did release images onto the wider Internet, they only provided small sized files, or watermarked them so that they would be useless. If their IP did manage to break free of their control and appear elsewhere, they would issue takedown notices, or initiate lawsuits. As you can imagine (and have likely experienced), the 20th century mindset greatly restricts what we can access, create, and share.

Today we have a bounty of amazing resources for open access, creative commons and public domain assets: text, images, archives, even videos and sound. Flickr creative commons search is a great resource for modern photography—like these pretty kitties.


Thankfully, in the 21st century, attitudes toward copyright are changing rapidly, especially in the arts and cultural field. More and more museums are releasing entire catalogs of high resolution images, like LACMA, The Getty, The Rijksmuseum, Yale University Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Art, just to name a few.

Just a few days ago, the Met released 400,000 high res images of their own. Corporate rightsholders like the RIAA, Disney, and major print publishers are still fighting tooth and nail for stricter and stricter protection on their intellectual properties. But museums know that hoarding their assets is contrary to their mission of bringing arts and cultural artifacts to the public.

 No Excuses

As I emphasized to the brown bag group, today we have a bounty of amazing resources for open access, creative commons and public domain assets: text, images, archives, even videos and sound. When searching for images or other content, a good rule of thumb is the public domain year.


Anything published before 1923 is in the public domain in the U.S. What’s more, all works created by the Federal Government are in the public domain, from USDA reports to presidential speeches to NASA’s beautiful photos and renderings of space.

Of course the Web is full of images that are not in the public domain, being shared without permission. This is a good thing! We can research and learn and experience a great wealth of material this way. In our personal lives, we share copyrighted images on social media all the time. As an institution, however, we hold PEM to a higher standard. We ask permission for images that we use in our exhibitions, and we do the same for content on the blog. We care about copyright because we appreciate the need to protect an artist’s work and the need to help creativity thrive.







  1. Virginia D. Hales says:

    Dear Claire–I am writing a book on the Greene family in RI. They were related to Thomas Waldron Sumner, who designed the East India Marine Hall in 1824 in Salem. In 1999, my husband and I came there to see it–it had just been fully restored to its original state. Rae Francoeur of the museum sent me two sets of slides of the interior, and I would like permission to put one or two of them in my book. The book is being self-published, with about 500 copies made at most, and will be sold in only one place: The Gamble House Bookstore, Pasadena, CA It is educational and not for profit. Thank you, Virginia Dart Greene Hales Publication date is: December 15, 2015, about 300 pages, entitled: Greene & Greene: Their Ancestral Heritage, 1550-1900.

  2. Claire says:

    Hi Virginia – Sorry to not see this sooner! For permissions requests, please fill out the form at

    The image rights inbox is images (at) pem (dot) org

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