The Commons

Friday, Jul 17, 2009 7:51 am
William Barnes

I just wanted to add something to my recent post on copyright on 200 year old paintings. The reasoning behind copyright is that giving a time-limited monopoly encourages people to create new things. And why do we care that people create things? Because after the time limit is up those creations enter the commons and become the property of everybody (and I ignore the contentiousness of that phrase). People understand the monopoly bit, but rarely the commons bit.

What bothers me is that museums are given works of art for safekeeping. They control access to the physical items and (in the interests of preventing damage perhaps) restrict the ability of people to take copies (flash photographs, for example). Eventually, these items are supposed to pass into the commons. But what good is a work in the commons if nobody can get a copy of it?

It’s really difficult to work out what’s right and wrong here in any general way. I don’t think we want to impose a duty to provide the public with copies of work in the commons. And I’m not sure we want to take away economic incentives to reproduce such works. It can be very expensive to restore and reproduce art. Maybe laws need to be made that address the reproduction of privately held commons works. Then again, the practical difficulties of providing copyright protection to copies of commons materials could be prohibitive. Eventually, those digital copies will themselves enter the commons. Does the first person to copy them at that point receive a copyright interest? And how do we manage the fact that dozens of people may own copyright in what is essentially the same thing?

In the case of museums it’s simpler than with private owners. Museums exist for the purpose of protecting and sharing cultural knowledge. They receive public funding, tax benefits, and physical possession of the works based on this. They should not be removing works from the commons. I’m not saying the museums are evil. They are, of course, constrained by financial considerations. They are underfunded and need to take advantage of everything they have. I’m just saying that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.