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Cloud collections: legal, scientific, and technical aspects of the digitisation of art

Published on 16 March 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

With the emergence of Web 2.0 and the proliferation of new digital technologies, there is a growing public demand for free, accessible, and engaging online content, extending to the realm of art. Digitisation has created new opportunities for museums and art galleries to preserve existing works, develop new and interactive content, and market collections to a broader audience. At the same time, keeping up with these digital trends has posed new financial pressures and legal challenges for these institutions.

Cloud collections: legal, scientific, and technical aspects of the digitisation of artOn 12 and 13 March, the University of Geneva hosted an international symposium on Cloud Collections, focusing on the ‘Legal, scientific, and technical aspects of the digitisation of art’. The product of a collaboration between University of Geneva’s Centre du droit de l’art, the Swiss Institute for Art Research (SIK ISEA), and the International Council of Museums, the event gathered academics and experts from across the art and digitisation sectors to discuss the risks and opportunities of merging art with the online world.

The session on March 12 centred on the topics Networking museums and their collections and The Online Art Market, moderated by University of Zurich Professor Tristan Weddigen and University of Geneva Professor Marc-André Renold, respectively.

Networking museums and their collections

Drawing on lessons learned from the Tate’s Archives and Access Digitisation project, Intellectual Property Manager Bernard Horrocks presented the ‘diligent but bold approach’ adopted by Tate to manage the legal complexities of copyright for the project’s 52,000 pieces. Speakers Yaniv Benhamou and Marie Pfammatter, lawyers from two Geneva firms, reiterated the need to identify and qualify copyright requirements and exceptions early in the process for all works within an art digitisation project. They also recommended that museums consider partnerships with platforms such as the Google Art Project or Europeana to digitise larger collections.

Cédric Manara, copyright specialist for Google, further highlighted the contributions of the Google Cultural Institute in democratising access to culture and enhancing the way we experience cultural works. For the final presentation, University of Geneva law professor Jacques de Werra examined the risks associated with social media platforms. Given the absence of specific regulatory frameworks for social media, it is important for museums to exercise due diligence and conduct monitoring when posting content to these platforms.

A panel discussion with five experts concluded the morning, advocating the overall benefits of putting art collections online and emphasising the need for greater digitisation efforts among museums in Switzerland.

The online art market

The democratisation of the art market was a recurring theme in the afternoon, and featured in presentations by Anne Laure Bandle, PhD student of the Centre du droit de l’art, and Shefali Roy, an MLRO (Money Laundering Reporting Officer) & Compliance Officer from the Stripe London Office. Online auctions and e-commerce platforms (e.g. Amazon and eBay) are expanding the scope of the art market, opening art sales to buyers and sellers outside of the professional art community. These business-to-consumer (B2C) online transactions are increasingly accompanied by specific regulations to protect consumer rights, such as the EU Directive on Consumer Rights. Virtual currencies, most notably Bitcoin, are also progressively penetrating the art market and contributing to its democratisation. However, knowledge about Bitcoin among museums is still very limited and is an area to be further explored as virtual currency circulation grows in the future.

Despite these developments, a final expert round table underlined the limitations of technology. Online art sales and auctions have not always proved successful and are unlikely to replace the physical presence of museums any time soon. Whether you are an art buyer or a simply an enthusiast, an interest in a piece or collection will continue to compel you to see the original masterpiece in person.

The Cloud Collections symposium is a reminder of how the Internet is permeating all layers of society. As the relationship between digital technologies and culture continues to evolve, it is important to gain a better understanding of the emerging regulatory challenges as they relate to intellectual property rights, e-commerce, and Internet governance as a whole.

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