Copyright matters

Did you know that when a work of art is acquired by anyone, including a museum or gallery, the copyright of the image of that object remains the property of the artist for his or her life, plus seventy years? According to Bob Jones, the Collections Officer at the Government Art Collection, it seems that many of us don't fully understand our complex and at times confusing copyright laws. Jones has responsibility for all copyright matters at the GAC and, as he explains, when a work of art first enters the Collection, this can sometimes involve hours of patient searching on the internet, following up the most tenuous of leads...

Slum Clearance (1975)
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With works of art in around 400 government buildings worldwide and about two-thirds of the Collection on display at any one time, we can't always get to see the works. We are therefore perhaps more reliant upon photographic images of the works than other collections most of whose holdings are kept on their premises. Reproduction of these images helps also to increase public awareness and knowledge of what's in the Collection, and allows easy identification for collection management purposes, including regular audits.

After a work is acquired my first step is to contact either the artist or the copyright holder to request permission to include an image on our website.  Identifying and finding the copyright holder, locating their address, tracking down their former art dealer or maybe their estate, sometimes requires a bit of detective work. Where the copyright is unclear, it can sometimes be traced through the Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS). Sometimes it involves asking other collections that hold examples of an artist's work if they have a contact. Recently I tracked down Zenon Zamojski  (image 1) after a newspaper article mentioned that a judge in a competition he had listed on his CV happened to be a senior partner in a Welsh solicitor's firm. Common names, for instance like my namesake 'Bob Jones', are often difficult to find. Women artists are sometimes harder to track down if they have adopted their married name.

In one instance we managed to find the address of an artist and sent off a copyright permission letter to him, waiting in hopeful anticipation for a positive response. The reply, however, was a bit perplexing and is still a bit of a mystery. The artist had no recollection of having painted the work, and said that it was not by him at all – he couldn't understand how his name had become attached to a picture which he had 'never seen'! We then tracked down the original dealer who confirmed that the painting was definitely one of a number that had been collected directly from the artist's studio.  A possible explanation proposed at the time was that somehow a student's work had become mixed up with the artist's own pictures. The work is now ascribed to 'The circle' of the artist.  

Our website helps us to get the word out to unknown copyright holders simply by listing those artists we would like to find. And very occasionally an artist or one of their relatives emails or calls us with this information. There can be cost implications with the use of images, since some copyright holders ask for a fee for permission to reproduce images. Artists can refuse permission for a variety of reasons including mistrust of the potential abuse of their images on the internet or because of their concerns about the quality of the image and how their work is represented.

Sometimes an artist doesn't feel that a work of art best represents their current practice. In instances like these, we respect their wishes. An artist's 'moral' rights under copyright law must also be respected. In UK law it is a requirement to acknowledge an artist as the maker of a work – it is also the case that an image must not be manipulated or changed (trimmed down or altered) without the artist's permission.

When works of art are commissioned, the terms of the commission sometimes include the copyright. In 1953, the Ministry of Works commissioned leading British artists of the time – including L.S. Lowry (image 2), Laura Knight (images 3 and 4) and Feliks Topolski (image 5) – to record Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation. This meant that we can now reproduce images of these works without seeking additional permissions.

Copyright law itself is constantly being reviewed to meet the demands of the digital age and changes in society. It is not consistent around the world, and rules and regulations will vary and at times conflict.

Finally, the famous copyright symbol © is not always needed to indicate that copyright exists for a work of art because this is an automatic right in itself. However, it's worth remembering just how much is involved in showing images of works of art on a museum or gallery website the next time that you see the © symbol!