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How to copyright Michelangelo

From the Borgias to Bill Gates

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It can be argued that this law about artwork reproductions originated as a courtesy to museums and cultural institutions, and sustains their efforts to preserve our artistic heritage. But there are other agencies that operate solely for profit.

Bill Gates, the world's richest man, founded Corbis, the world's largest source for archival images in 1989. There is a (probably apocryphal) legend about Gates conceiving the idea for Corbis because he wanted fine art to display on the large screen TVs in his new mansion. But legends aside, clearly Gates saw that the image brokering business was ripe for exploitation by someone with deep pockets.

Corbis has recently acquired several major sole-source archives of images, such as The Bettmann Archive. Corbis offers many contemporary copyrighted photos, but it also provides copyrighted photos of old public domain works for which Corbis is the only source; this can only be considered a monopoly. Corbis has negotiated deals to purchase the exclusive rights to the entire archives of major museums across the world. The museums transfer copyrights of all their works to Corbis, and Corbis makes the images available for purchase, guaranteeing the museums a revenue stream. Corbis has yet to make a profit from these museum collections, but the museums are locked into long term contracts and they like the money.

Ultimately, it should not be surprising that a monopolist like Bill Gates discovered a clause in copyright law that allowed him to acquire a new monopoly. All monopolies ultimately derive from copyrights or patents granted by government. There is essentially no difference between a monopoly on artworks by Corbis, or a monopoly on computer operating systems by Microsoft.

In a video interview on CNN in March 2006, Gates outlined his vision of Corbis as a commercial hub for image transactions, proposing a system of Digital Rights Management for images. You can see the video here.

Whatever Gates touches, he makes into an expression of his personal business philosophy. The same provisions of copyright law apply to cultural institutions as well as robber barons, the only difference is how those laws are exploited.

Copyright laws are fine, and work for, not against, the public interest. The ability to exploit the rights to Michelangelo's original work permitted a new masterpiece to emerge. But copyright only works if we can rein in the robber barons. ®

Bootnote

This famous Holbein painting was executed in 1533, but the post-restoration photo bears a copyright notice by The National Gallery of London, dated 2002. This painting was restored in 1997, it might have been difficult to get patrons to support an expensive restoration project if the Gallery could not profit from IP licensing of the newly restored artwork. The National Gallery's IP licensing terms are available here.

Charles Eicher is an artist and multimedia producer in the American Midwest. He has a special interest in intellectual property rights in the Arts and Humanities. He writes at the Disinfotainment weblog.

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