The debate about intellectual property rights rattled around my head while I was visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art and later the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was somewhat surprised to learn they permitted photography provided it was for private use and flash was not used. Video is forbidden. As a contrast, in most live performance settings, you can’t use any sort of recording device at all.
Now let me acknowledge from the start that there are marked differences between the two settings. In a gallery one has greater leeway in the timing of photographs. You can wait for a group to move away from a piece before taking a picture. In a live performance, great moments are fleeting. And because it is more difficult to properly frame people in motion, you often feel the need to take multiple pictures in a short time. This sense of urgency can inevitably put the photographer at a live event in a position where they are impinging on the enjoyment of other attendees far more frequently than the museum photographer. Unless most everyone is participating in recording the event, the distraction of the attempt is generally undesirable, even without flash.
But outside the time when the performance is occurring, almost every element of the performance is protected. Whether you are in the audience before the show or on a backstage tour, you can’t take pictures of the set, lights or costumes because they are considered protected intellectual property. Performers also reserve the control of their likeness.
Yet when I was at the Metropolitan Museum there was an exhibition of costumes by Alexander McQueen and unless I missed the sign, the rules about photography were the same as the rest of the museum. Perhaps it was because his designs were considered fashion and therefore meant to be photographed. But what about all the other works in the museums which are still protected by copyright and whose creators are still very much alive? Are they not being harmed by people taking pictures of their work? Maybe there is a debate raging in the visual arts world that they are. I have only really started reading about visual arts issues in earnest over the last year. Perhaps I have missed the conversation.
Heck, will my posting images from Storm King Art Center dissuade people from visiting them? If so, the genie is out of the bottle Google Maps actually lets you view photos of each piece as it is positioned on the ground. I am guessing that isn’t about to erode attendance because I saw a large number of tweets about visiting Storm King the last few days.
It got me to thinking that all these restrictions are seriously impeding the cause of the performing arts. The elements I am referring don’t even enter the discussion about whether a bootleg copy of a performance replaces a possible sale. This doesn’t approach the question about whether agreeing to allow a promotional video to be broadcast on television also gives permission for the video to be posted on YouTube, if it deserves additional compensation and if it is eroding one’s brand. These are already issues of debate and clearly worthy of discussion on their own.
Few people are going to make the decision to skip the show because they saw a close up picture of a costume or the unattractive back side of a flat. Yeah, so the illusion is broken, but for a lot of people it is exciting to compare the reality with the illusion that fooled them. Are designers going to suddenly be forced out of work or their reputations ruined when photos of the show start appearing online? Will those pictures threaten to allow less talented people to replicate the designs at a lower cost? How is this more a threat to a designer than to a visual artist? Yes, there may be proprietary technology involved. However, most people on a backstage tour don’t have the means to replicate it and if those that do can recreate it from passing photographs, they probably have the means to acquire the information with relatively little effort anyway.
What is being protected? Is the value of whatever is being protected actually enhanced by doing so? Or is the fact that so few are ever exposed to it mean that its perceived value is generally insignificant?