Art wants to be shared

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam would like its art to be used properly even if that reduces its commercial opportunities:

Many museums post their collections online, but the Rijksmuseum here has taken the unusual step of offering downloads of high-resolution images at no cost, encouraging the public to copy and transform its artworks into stationery, T-shirts, tattoos, plates or even toilet paper.

The staff’s goal is to add 40,000 images a year until the entire collection of one million artworks spanning eight centuries is available, said Taco Dibbits, the director of collections at the Rijksmuseum.

In this case, what is interesting is that the motivations are not purely commercial:

“We’re a public institution, and so the art and objects we have are, in a way, everyone’s property,” Mr. Dibbits said in an interview. “‘With the Internet, it’s so difficult to control your copyright or use of images that we decided we’d rather people use a very good high-resolution image of the ‘Milkmaid’ from the Rijksmuseum rather than using a very bad reproduction,” he said, referring to that Vermeer painting from around 1660.


“If they want to have a Vermeer on their toilet paper, I’d rather have a very high-quality image of Vermeer on toilet paper than a very bad reproduction,” he said.

This reminds me of Bill Gates’ similar statement that if people were going to pirate software he would rather than pirate Microsoft’s.

But they go further to argue that this type of use makes the art more valuable.

Mr. Dibbits of the Rijksmuseum maintains that letting the public take control of the images is crucial to encouraging people to commune with the collection. “The action of actually working with an image, clipping it out and paying attention to the very small details makes you remember it,” he said.

This is great. So I’ll celebrate by providing one example of their work that I like here.

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 2.56.15 PM[HT: Ariel Katz]

One Reply to “Art wants to be shared”

  1. Have you tried actually downloading images from their site? The Times quite simply got the story wrong. You can download an image for free for personal use, but “to copy and transform its artworks into stationery, T-shirts, tattoos, plates or even toilet paper” you need to fill out a request form and wait for somebody from the museum to get back to you and start negotiating fees for commercial or professional license. This is no different from what any other museum does, except perhaps in the online permission request form. There is no new economic concept to discuss here. Just another erroneous front page story in The New York Times.

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