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The Met's Updated Image Use Policy

One of the many lessons I've learned in my first 10 months on the job at the Met is how much attention is paid to everything we do here. Having worked at Columbia Journalism School for two decades, I am familiar with the amount of interest journalists take in the activities of a major institution (especially when most alumni are journalists themselves).

Because of the Met's reputation, scale, and history, our activities get a lot of scrutiny. I wrote recently about the social media traction that we got thanks to the annual #MetGala, and the Webby Award for our Instagram account.

But nothing quite prepared me for the amount of press, blogger, and social media attention we've gotten for our recently updated image use policy. The update allows for the download and noncommercial use of hundreds of thousands of our images without needing our permission, and without a fee. These images are labeled "OASC" for Open Access for Scholarly Content. From the Image Resources section of our site:

Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC) via the Met's Website

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is committed to making a broad range of digital images of artworks in the public domain widely and freely available for scholarly and academic publication. To assist in navigating the vast image content on this website, the Museum has implemented Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC). Through OASC, artworks in The Collection Online section of the website which the Museum believes to be in the public domain and free of other known restrictions have been identified by an icon, Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC) Icon; images associated with these artworks can be downloaded for license- and cost-free scholarly and academic publication, according to the Terms and Conditions. To learn more about how to identify, access, and use the Museum's Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC), see Frequently Asked Questions: Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC).

That still leaves thousands of images—mostly from living artists and those who've died within the past 70 years—not available for download (though available for viewing, of course).

In the week we announced the update, we saw a 115% bump in our weekly pageviews (5.8 million versus our usual 2.7 million or so) and a 47% bump in our unique visitors (929,000 versus our usual 550,000 or so). We also had global press coverage, with stories running in outlets as different as The Verge and Voice of America Persian Service. As a museum, we want as many people around the world to experience our collection as possible. After all, many more people visit our website (about 24 million unique visitors a year) than are able to visit us in person on Fifth Avenue and at The Cloisters (about 6 million visitors a year). At the same time, we need to be careful stewards of artists' rights as well as our limited technology budget.

Many museums are working through their own image use policies and looking for ways to have their collections be more visible. Some, like the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Rijksmuseum, have moved to a policy where all the images they own the rights to are available for any purpose, including commercial ones.

For several years, the Met has had images of our artwork available on this website, and when the site was relaunched in 2011, hundreds of thousands of images were made public and downloadable, mainly for personal use. This was the result of working through artists' rights issues and thinking through our image distribution policy with respect to public use. But our terms and conditions still required users to ask our permission for scholarly publications, and users had to pay a fee for some scholarly and commercial uses. Our recent launch of OASC provides the express authorization for scholarly and noncommercial publication in any media without fee or permission, and identifies the works available for such use.

As word spread of the updated policy, so did confusion. Many folks thought that we had suddenly provided all the images in our collection for free download. This is not the case. What we've done is broaden the allowable use of our public-domain images for scholarly and noncommercial use. Images of works by many modern—and all living—artists are not included in this policy.

There have been questions about how the Met can limit use of images of objects in the public domain. Here's our thinking, which continues to evolve and reflects many conversations we continue to have within the Museum. The Met has a long tradition of subsidizing, in whole or in part, requests for scholarly publication of our images. The next step in the process, the OASC, adds to the uses by expressly authorizing the use of Museum images of works in the public domain for scholarly and noncommercial purposes, including publication in print and digital media. At present, as a nonprofit institution, the Met is uncomfortable expressly subsidizing purely commercial projects.

As noted above, this is a work in progress and we'll be back to share any updates in the months ahead. Meanwhile, we hope researchers, scholars, students, and other art enthusiasts will take advantage of this new policy to greatly expand the use of and study of our collection. We would love to hear about interesting uses of these images—and your thoughts on the update—in the comments below.

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