The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Google’s quest to make art available to everyone was foiled by copyright concerns

(Righted Museum/Mario Santamaría/Google)
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When Google launched its “Art Project” four years ago, it touted it as a huge boon for freedom of information and cultural connectivity. But if you peek into any of the museums on Google Street View now, you’ll notice lots of big, blurred rectangles where paintings should be — the result of a copyright system that keeps even important artworks from being viewed publicly.

Since 2013, the Spanish artist Mario Santamaría has been documenting these blurred works in a series he calls “Righted Museum.” He’s spotted them in L.A.’s Getty Center and Madrid’s Thyssen Museum; in the National Gallery of Denmark, the National Gallery of Art in the U.S., the Art Institute of Chicago, the Indianapolis Museum. And he posts his new finds daily to Tumblr, where several have recently bubbled up to semi-viral fame — an oddly evocative record of every time the noble quest to free the world’s cultural artifacts couldn’t quite be maintained.

There is, Santamaría’s work points out, an inherent conflict between public good and private interests. But intriguingly, the conflict is on museums’ end, not Google’s. Google has no rights to any of the artworks it photographs or displays for Art Project; per the the project’s director, Amit Sood, Google is contractually barred from making money off the project. (Lest this has you questioning the company’s motives, Google executives have also said there’s “an investment logic” to it: “If you invest in what’s good for the Web and the users, that will bear fruit.”)

Museums, on the other hand, can definitely make bank off these paintings: first by charging admission to see them, and then by demanding hefty licensing fees of people who want to reprint them in studies or books. So for years, many museums have had what Techdirt once called an “ownership mentality” — the attitude that no one should be allowed to photograph, or even sketch, any valuable piece the museum owns.

On top of that, copyright terms are pretty long — particularly in the U.S. Here, an artists’ rights over his artwork don’t expire until 70 years after his death.

Both of these provisions are intended to protect the interests of the artist and the museum, of course. But in the digital age — when the potential audience for any given artwork is a thousand times larger than the crowd that physically walks through a museum’s doors — copyright law and its more zealous readings can actually function to hide artwork. This is, incidentally, the exact reason that museums like the Smithsonian and the Met have begun to digitize their giant collections.

“Museums have choices in the shaping of institutional policies,” the Columbia law professor Kenneth Crews stressed in a paper on “copyright overreaching” in 2012. “… Breaking away from familiar policy terms can sometimes better serve institutional and public interests.”

It would certainly serve the interests of Google’s Art Project — if not Google’s so-called “Cultural Institute,” more generally. Since the Institute launched in 2011, it’s digitized 45,000 artworks, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Nelson Mandela’s entire archives, and 360-degree views of Stonehenge, Pompeii and the Great Barrier Reef, among tens of thousands of other things.

Just this week, the project added 2,000 artifacts and artwork from Australia: an attempt, Google said, to make “our cultural heritage accessible to many more people — both in Australia and around the world.”

But both in Australia and around the world, Google’s grand cultural efforts have been dogged by suspicion and property-rights claims. A group of publishers sued the company over its Books project, which scanned 20 million books into a virtual library. At the last minute, France’s culture minister bailed on the opening of the Google Cultural Institute’s facility in Paris — concerned, he said, that the operation still “raises a number of questions.” (This is, incidentally, the same country whose President rejected Google Books thusly: “We won’t let ourselves be stripped of our heritage to the benefit of a big company, no matter how friendly, big or American it is.”)

And any stroll through the museums digitized by Google Streetview shows gaping holes where some restricted works should be: mirrored squares in The Lowry, ghosts in the Getty Center, peculiar fogs in Japan’s Ohara Museum of Art. Google does not explain or disclose why particular works are missing. But there is evidently disagreement over a principle the Dutch museum director Taco Dibbits articulated in 2013:

“We’re a public institution,” he said, “and so the art and objects we have are, in a way, everyone’s property.”

Santamaría, for his part, has done several series on the role of art in public life — and the role of Google in both things. For a previous project, he searched Street View for accidental selfies Google’s 360 cameras took when they passed mirrors in art museums, opera houses and other buildings. Before that, he made a video called “Running Through the Museum“: it consists of Santamaría clicking through Street View’s map of Versailles as quickly as he can. In 2011, he matched TV footage from Athens’ riots against scenes from Google Earth and called it “Modelcam.”

Each of those projects interrogates Google’s depiction of the world: what our chosen oracle shows us, and what it does not.

But when it comes to art, even Google can only show so much. It’s digitizing the world’s cultural artifacts — but only those that copyright law blessedly forgot.

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