Canadians Make Their Mark on Global Guide for Museum IP

Canadians Make Their Mark on Global Guide for Museum IP

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has updated its Guide on Managing Intellectual Property for Museums, with two Canadians playing major roles in the Guide’s creation.

The Guide’s primary author is Canadian Rina Elster Pantalony. In the Guide’s acknowledgments, Pantalony recognized the instrumental help of fellow Canadian art IP expert Lyn Elliot Sherwood. Art and law commenters welcomed the new guide, but pointed out that it fails to address what museums can do when faced with copyright law shortcomings born from the global growth in counterfeit art facilitated by new technologies. The Guide openly states that it “does not argue for strong or weak IP protection” but rather focuses on how museums can manage IP while balancing their societal mandates to be centres of learning and intellectual curiosity.

Analysis: Guide Review

This 90-page document is a must read for anyone in the museum, art or cultural industries. It’s an accessible, straightforward read. Given the variability in copyright and intellectual property between countries, it acts to whet the appetite of anyone looking for a general guide to the issues of art and culture preservation within a legal context.

Moreover, the document flows brilliantly. The author takes the reader through introductory definition chapters; for example, how copyright and trade-marks are defined in a museum context. The author then goes into heavier issues such as best practices for a museum IP audit. It also covers digital rights management solutions and notes on social media and museums. It includes case studies of successful museum IP management models around the world. Finally, it lists out important commercial considerations such as distribution, licensing and co-branding with non-museum entities.

In regards to the Guide’s attempt to take a neutral position vis-à-vis the laws themselves, there is certainly no such thing as neutrality, especially when it comes to museum art and ownership. One need look no further than the controversial British appropriation of Egyptian artifacts or the Dead Sea Scrolls ROM protests to know that even where the law is clear, politics pervades. Additionally, WIPO in its entirety has often faced criticism for its western cultural and legal bias.

Another controversial issues is that assertive museum IP policies – aptly described in Canadian Heritage Information Network’s (CHIN’s) How-To Guide for Museums as the demise of the “polite policy” – can have a chilling effect on museums as educative experiences for consumers. Growing focus on IP laws by museums increases the tension between museums and the consumers of the content; copyright versus education is one of the most common debates in intellectual property law. One of the most obvious examples of this, one that touches all of us, is the way museums choose to restrict visitor photography. Some museums believe that photos violate intellectual property, while some commentators and museums are advocating for more open photo policies.

Even with these tectonic issues underlying museum IP and WIPO, the Guide does do a fairly good job of being fair. It attempts to stand back from the fray and be as politically agnostic in its recommendations as possible. And it succeeds.

On a final personal note, it’s nice to see the Canadian authors and those that influenced the document comfortably promote our domestic museum management practices on the world stage. CHIN's Community Memories initiative for smaller Canadian museums and community centre archives is profiled. The Guide also outlines CHIN’s North America-wide studies of museum IP and management practices. And finally, the Guide profiles the Department of Heritage’s launch of the Virtual Museum of Canada, an online museum of internet-based exhibitions.

So even amidst mild criticisms of the Guide’s neutrality in regards to the current IP laws, it’s hard not to be proud of this document, its authors, and the progressive work that Canada has done to support museums and their IP management.


Denise Brunsdon is an IPilogue Editor, JD/MBA Candidate at Western University, and researcher for GRAND (Graphics, Research and New Media) Centre.