back to article How to copyright Michelangelo

Some of the world's greatest artworks are turning into copyrighted properties.Five hundred years ago, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Today, those images are copyrighted. How can ancient cultural icons become commercial properties, centuries after they fall into the public domain? How this happened is a story …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up


    An interesting article. I'm amazed the Vatican couldn't find $4m, but then they always claim they're asset rich and cash poor - and pogroms aren't as popular as they once were.

  2. Anonymous Coward

    The Future is

    Pay as you Go - a la Minority Report, every time you look at an object that is subject to copyright, you get scanned, and your account debited. Every time you hear a copyrighted note, you'll get charged for it. Never mind being charged for the air you breath, but for the light reflecting off all this wonderful copyrighted material. In the future, it will pay to be deaf and blind.

    But the Vatican's outsourcing of funds by a Japanese firm is concurrent with their ongoing commitment to break into the Asian market, where Catholicism has been a minority since the mid 18th century. It's all about global domination (or is that dominion ?)

    All right, getting my coat ....

  3. Julian

    probably apocryphal

    If something is apocryphal then it is, by definition, not certain (as opposed to false). The possibility that a story may not be true means that it is definitely apocryphal. It cannot be not probably apocryphal.

    On the main substance of the story, I agree with the US court. If I re-produce a Beethoven score but add nothing to it at all, then I don't get copyright on the result. If I adjust the phrasing, correct a bar line and generally contribute creatively, I do get copyright on the result. Otherwise photocopying somebody else's creative work would create a new creative work.

    I can't see the difference here. A photograph of a street scene, mining truck or a sport's moment all requires careful framing, selection and timing. Pure photographic reproduction may require skill but there is no creative element - it is photocopying in its purest sense. This might be bad for art restorers but I can't see why copying by photo ain't photocopying. It would make more sense to claim that restoration is a creative work (similar to interpreting a musical score for publication) and the new copyright rests with the restorer.

  4. Christopher Lindley

    Open-source images?

    "...a photograph of that artwork may be copyrighted as a new unique work. The photograph taken today becomes a new copyrighted work with new intellectual property rights."

    Or, you choose not to copyright your photograph of the artwork at all, thereby making it available to the public-domain. More to the point: You compete with those who did choose to copyright that image. A guerrilla graphics tactic!

  5. Anonymous Coward

    Off topic

    I like the skull that Holbein shopped into his painting.

  6. Ben Gibson

    @ Julian

    I like the comments. However it could be argued that reproduction takes almost as much skill as the original painting.

    You don't get to choose what material you draw/paint on, and in the terms of what painting is been discussed there could be a large amount of restrictions on what can be used to paint with. It could be considered creative, I don't think reproduction should be lumbered together with photocopying.

    In some cases of course this wouldn't apply but perhaps it should be taking into account.

  7. yeah, right.

    losing it.

    The Statute of Anne of 1710 broke the monopoly of the London Company of Stationers, creating a public domain and getting rid of the concept of "perpetual copyright", amongst other things.

    Today: re-introduction of "perpetual copyright" through the back door, using a combination of insanely long copyright terms (up to 100 years now, and rising), criminalization of DRM removal (thus even if it's in the public domain, if it has DRM you can't get to it) and the ability to copyright the copies of a work that is already in the public domain (which effectively remove that work FROM the public domain).

    Looks like the London Company of Stationers is back in business, and we can all kiss our public domain, and our copy RIGHTS, goodbye.

  8. lucmars


    So, if it is just a matter of getting a revenu stream from art, every Museum, galeries and co keep theirs masterpieces in a bunker and license theirs reproductions.

    I should read again Walter Benjamin and his fellows from Francfort, did they have spotted this aspect in their time?

    Did Warhol manage his IP upon all the reproductions of his production ?

  9. Martin Usher

    The true face of copyright

    Copyright used to be about rewarding the creator of a work for a period of time before the work's ownership became public. Gradually the laws and practices are being altered so that copyright is about ownership in perpetuity. A lot of the arguments about DRM and copyright enforcement overlook this -- its not about rewarding starving musicians, its about the ability of large organizations to own our culture and charge tolls for its use.

    The Egyptian government has recently got in on the act, its going to copyright its monuments and stuff. How is anyone's guess, but it obviously has looked at law and practice and feels it can do this and so monetize its property. (The French have long since had a situation where you can't photograph property without permission, they regard building facades as copyright, so this might be where they've got the idea from.)

    Its all wrong. Horribly wrong. But there's money involved so there's nothing we can do about it.

  10. Sam


    More hi-res art turning up on the pirate bay, then?

    Who's going to be taken to court for having a 400 year old image on their hard drive?? I can't wait to hear the judicial arguments...

    Stop the planet, I want to get off.

  11. paulc

    no photography

    this is most likely the real reason why you can't take photographs of old objects in museums... Corbis has signed up the rights to the images of those objects and the museum are not allowed to allow photography... Gates, I ******* hate that man... he's a pustule on the backside of humanity...

  12. boris svirsky

    copyright should be ethernal

    and belong to owner of art piece or thr rights - only if owner has a contract for copy rights.

    if owner has no contract signed by artist on rights for reproduction - the owner can not claim for those rights, because some one else may be their owner ... so, if a Vatican can not present contract for such a rights signed by Michelangelo - those rights are not manageable . - sorry... -and every body can claim his relatives had oral agreement with Michelangelo on these right as well as Vatican... as it hard to imagine Vatican has a writen document to base it's clames - they actualy will lose in every court claiming for those rights... as for restoration - cleaning the statue not give an owner of statue or cleaning stuff rights on photos of cleaned statue - the rights are of photographer, and and he has to have aproval from owner to make photos, but not the reproduction of photos - because owner - may have no right for reproduction, so he just can not sell rights he doesn't own. If owner is also a photographer - he can claim for rights on photos, so actualy if you can prevent from other photographers to make photos of something - you can own reproduction rights forever... - and i sugest to vatican to cover with curtains the ceilings of capela

  13. J


    Some nuances apart: pure, greed-motivated evil. But it's for profit, whose maximization is the only thing that matters in life, so it must be OK. Curiously enough, the US is, of all places, the one where this was somewhat blocked -- so far -- if I understood the article.

  14. JeffyPooh

    What's the point of copyright?

    Many good points already made above.

    If Michelangelo spends years on his back, he DESERVES a reasonable copyright. If someone takes a simple photograph, then their rights should be in proportion to their effort (i.e. next to none).

    Any of these ancient artworks really need to be firmly in the public domain. The artist has long since turned too dust. There should be no more rights for anyone. Perhaps Google could do the world a favour and create Google Hi-Res Scans of Public Domain Art.

    I'm sure that many people are getting sick to death of the whining rights holders. Even listening to BBC Podcasts, one hears a notice that the music has been replaced by this notice due to unwillingness to pay the rights holders their fee multiplied by six billion. There's almost no music left on BBC World Service probably due to this issue.

    Enough is enough already. Time to take back the overly broad monopoly 'privileges' that we have ~given~ to the 'rights holders'. Already in Canada, a copyright bill got stopped in its tracks by the public outcry. Hopefully Rev. A will provide a more balanced approach to the whole subject.

  15. Snert Lee

    Remembering the Purpose

    I keep getting the feeling that, in and amidst the furor of protectionism and punishment, the purpose of copyright and patent has been lost.

    Intellectual property rights are not about the protection of profit making and information ownership.

    Rather, intellectual property rights are an elaborate bit of bribery offered by society, through the mechanisms of law and government, as an incentive for creators and inventors to share their creations and inventions with the rest of us.

    We, as a society, offer to the creators of these works, or their duly authorized designees, the promise of exclusive control over these works, for a period of time, enforced by the promise of legal remedy should that control be illegally infringed upon during that period of time.

    In return for this protection, at the end of that period, all rights of usage pass to the public.

    It's as simple as that.

    If copyrights and patents do not expire in a timely fashion, if the works covered do not enter the public domain after some reasonable period, then it is not in society's interest to offer or enforce intellectual property rights.

  16. Grant

    Seems reasonable to me -if not extendable

    I don't have a problem copyrighting a photograph of the Sistine Chapel. Photographing a physical oject is not like photocoping, lighting, colour saturation, angle etc have to be dealt with. But the photograph has a limited copyright period (50 years or whatever) After that that photograph falls into public domain ( none of this extending Mickey Mouse copyright for 100+ years crap). That way if an artwork is retored and rephotographed the new photos have a period of copyright. The public is getting something new for their money, they could not look at picture of the artwork in it current sate before the photographer did their work. If a new reprduction terchnec like holograms becomes popular and some one makes a hologram of David, then the hologrammer should have copyright for time, as their work is adding to public benifit. A view does not have to travel to the musem to view the original artwork. In time the copyright on the hologram will lapse. I don't like the DRM stuff, but at the very least it should not to be illegal to bypass DRM on works without a current copyright.

  17. BitTwister


    > reason why you can't take photographs of old objects in museums.

    It's a bit variable (in the UK, at least). The Natural History Museum has a 'photograph/video whatever you want, provided it's for personal use' policy, as does the British Museum - but the Royal Observatory at Greenwich forbids any recording at all of the *amazing* Harrison clocks held there. Same with Westminster Abbey - photography is permitted in the cloisters only (ie. outside), and expressly forbidden elsewhere. But at Ely Cathedral, you're charged a tiny fee for a photography pass - which remains valid for one year. (it's that sort of approach which makes me feel more inclined to donate to them, waiving my copyright, any worthwhile picture I might have taken there)

    I'm Ok with the idea of a specific *reproduction* of a public work (emphatically NOT restoration) being copyrighted - but I thought we were already helping pay for our historic public buildings/artifacts through general taxation? Stopping me from photographing "my" property seems a bit steep.

    (although I think you're right about Gates: given half a chance he'll apply the usual 'embrace & extinguish' techniques to anything within grasp)

  18. Alex Tingle

    Not clear-cut in the UK.

    I don't think that UK law is as clear-cut as you think. The statutes don't mention photographic reproductions. The assertion that a photographic reproduction is a 'new' work is, um, not self-evident.

    Until English case law is established, we won't know whether the Bridgeman vs. Corel decision will be echoed over here. Even in the US, the situation is not 100% clear - the Bridgeman vs. Corel case was decided in a lower court - the precedent could be overturned by the Supreme Court.

    Until the situation is clarified, Wikipedia is quite right to make the best use they can of what's available to them.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton


    I have just two comments.

    The Catholic church gets cash every time it has a church service during the collections, unfortunately its the poorest in the world who make the most donations, so they will never get a chance of its benefits, but then its always been like that with the RC Church, take, keep and give out hot air.

    Its about time Pirate Bay expanded and allowed all the these treasures to be seen by the great populace, only the politics of the richest nations are squashing the possibility of the masses from getting those very cheap pc's that was in the news a few months ago.

    So greed of the rich nations as always stops anything that is of any good getting to the poorest, whether it be art, medicinal drugs, music or even a peaceful life.

    Paris Hilton angle (well I havent seen her mentioned for a few days, poor girl)

  20. amanfromMars Silver badge

    A.N.Other Vista.

    "In return for this protection, at the end of that period, all rights of usage pass to the public."

    Snert Lee,

    Public usage immediately would pay for everything without need of protection and without such a block on Universal Progress.

  21. amanfromMars Silver badge

    Binary Confluence ......Greater Understandings

    Probably apocryphal, Julian, but Future Memory is AI Creative Art in Perfect Harmony with Space....... and ITs Broad Band Spectrum Capabilities within Future Use Helm Parameters ...... Drivers CodeXXXX in a Simply CompleXXXX Binary VXXXXine CoIntrusion. Mating. I trust in GODs that they have All Adequately Prepared for the Love Child in One Parallel .

    Alien Medicine Apache MaJIC to Scout Out in NeuReal Operating Systems ......42 Boldly Go, in A.N.Other Field/Dimension/Track.

  22. Anonymous Coward


    ITT fail

    Looking after these works costs a huge amount of money. An amount of money that the public don't want to pay either taxes or entry fees.

    So where else is the money supposed to come from? Magic pixies? Who will come in spreading their twinkly fairy dust and bags of cash?

    No - they either photograph or reproduce the images themselves to sell in photobooks and reproductions (or history programs, shows about museums etc) or they get in someone else to put the money upfront in return for rights to sell images.

    Stuff costs money, the only alternative is the museums sell all their works to private owners who lock them away in their own galleries becosue if they don't the works will just rot in condenmed buildings. Or more taxation.

  23. SImon Hobson

    @ paulc

    At least one person is thinking the way I am.

    The NEW copyright is only on the specific images, so there is nothing in copyright law that would prevent your or I from going and taking our own pictures of these old works of art. However, the current owners/custodians will not permit that - and you can argue that they should have the right to dictate what may or may not be done on their premises.

    And it's hard to criticise a cash strapped museum for taking advantage of some cash it's offered !

  24. JeffyPooh

    It's gotta be true...

    Found on the web:

    "...copyright laws. But seriously, did you agree to these laws? As far as I know its not violation unless you signed something stating you wouldn't do it. But thats just my opinion."

    Although the facts are a bit weak, I admire his positive attitude.

    I nominate this as Quote of the Year (2007).

    Happy New Year.

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