Dances with intellectual property: museums, monetization and digitization - Tate Research Repository
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Dances with intellectual property: museums, monetization and digitization



In 2006, and again in 2013 in a second edition, I wrote an intellectual property management guide for museums, which was published by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Part II, and in particular Chapter 6 (Pantalony 2013), were devoted to identifying potential business opportunities for museums in relation to defined museum-related intellectual property. Museums have tiptoed around this issue, and museum administrators have often asked that their points of view be held in confidence – and if made public at all, provided only anonymously. Representatives of various cultural heritage institutions have been known to speak about this issue in hushed tones, stating: ‘You know, it’s controversial . . .’ Why does this subject cause such discomfort in the museum community, and amongst its professionals and scholars? The issue of intellectual property in relation to museums or museum activity has given rise to much criticism over the past twenty years. The advent of new media technologies and the Internet in the 1990s revolutionized our ability to communicate, but it also gave rise to a revolution in commerce and commercial activity. Museums were eager to embrace new means of communication and embarked upon significant experimentation. Organizations such as the Museum Computer Network (MCN), and conferences such as Museums and the Web, were and continue to be devoted to the intersection of museums and digital media. However, certain early adopters within the museum community, primarily in Britain and North America, were willing to experiment further in pushing the boundaries of ‘acceptability’ by examining the intersection between digital media production, traditional museum subject matter, and commercial activity.1 As we are now well aware, digital media production, particularly in the online environment, can give rise to significant intellectual property issues. During these early years in the 1990s and following, rights management and licensing were seen as primary mechanisms by which museums could ‘generate revenue’. In fact, they defined early business models propagated by various experiments in the early era. Moreover, the assumption in this era was that the principal intellectual property held by museums was vested in the photographic copyrights connected to museum collections. Thus the conclusion, held by many, was that if museums were going to experiment in the production of digital media, and engage directly in commercial activity and in the online environment, then the end results could only lead to commercialization of the museum collection. The purpose of this paper is to examine the root of our discomfort with this subject. What causes those of us in the museum community to recoil with distaste when commercial activity and museum activities are mentioned at the same instance? What do we mean by the boundaries of ‘acceptability’, as referenced above? And finally, are there instances where museum intellectual property can be ‘leveraged’ and intermixed without causing such a visceral reaction? The argument being advanced in this essay is that the answer to many of these questions lies within our community’s ethics and values that shape our community members’ individual mandates.


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