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How to copyright Michelangelo

From the Borgias to Bill Gates

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NHK would fund high resolution photographic surveys of the pre- and post-restoration frescos. The ceiling would be hidden behind scaffolding for years, the restoration work could only be seen in photos cautiously released by the Vatican and NHK. When the restored work was finally unveiled, everyone wanted to see the pictures in the new NHK art book. It was a sensation, as promised, each image was as bright and sharp as the day it was painted. NHK won accolades for its patronage, and recouped some of its expenses with the film and book. The Vatican got a free restoration, and the work was preserved for the future.

But there is some legal controversy surrounding this issue. Old artworks may have an owner, but no living author or heirs, and the rights may have expired. If the work is in the public domain, the only guardian is the owner, who has an incentive to exploit those rights for profit. In 1999, a US District Court appears to completely strip away those rights.

In the case of Bridgeman Art Library, LTD. vs Corel Corp., Bridgeman sued Corel for infringement. Corel had sold unauthorized CDROMs with Bridgeman's copyrighted images of public domain artworks.

Bridgeman lost the case, and the court set a legal precedent that a photograph of an artwork is not a new work eligible for copyright. Bridgeman had inadvertently destroyed a major market for its products and weakened its central business model. But the US legal precedent does not apply in the UK where both Bridgeman and El Reg operate, so we must pay for the privilege of publishing them.

Some organizations are skirting around this issue. One of my favorite images from the Sistine Chapel ceiling is known as the "Delphic Sibyl." The Sibyl is supposed to be a woman, but Michelangelo prefered young boys as models, so we get a charming figure with an androgynous face and manly arms jutting out from under her blouse and cape. An image of the restored Sibyl is available on Wikipedia, with this disclaimer:

This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

This applies to the United States, Canada, the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.

Faithful reproductions of two-dimensional original works cannot attract copyright in the U.S. according to the rule in Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. This photograph was taken in the U.S. or in another country where a similar rule applies.

But the disclaimer avoids mentioning UK law; a footnote links to a clarification that accessing this image in the UK could be an infringing action. The Wikipedia image left is unattributed, leaving the international legal status unclear.

The British Museums Copyright Group issued a statement denouncing the Bridgeman v. Corel decision, and advocating the preservation of existing copyright laws concerning reproduction of art objects. Museums and institutions demand control of their IP rights, so it could be difficult to find donors to support restoration and preservation projects if the Intellectual Property rights become worthless.

At this stage, a new and powerful figure enters the picture.

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