Sketching is copying; copying is stealing. Coming soon: no breathing.


This may be old news for art students, but for the rest of us it’s still kind of amazing to see cultural institutions like museums buying into the “copying is stealing” myth by prohibiting sketching.

In some cases, the copying restrictions are imposed by a lender — it would be interesting to know how often the lender imposes restrictions on works that are not under copyright, or that would not otherwise be restricted.

Nina Paley collected some examples after the jump. Know any others?

  • Philadelphia Museum of Art: “All sketching in exhibition galleries or of works of art on loan is prohibited.”

    From the wording, that applies to any work on loan, whether in the public domain or not. Someone started a petition to get this restriction lifted, but it doesn’t seem to have succeeded.

  • Royal Ontario Museum: “Sketching may be prohibited for some special exhibitions, due to contractual agreements with lending institutions or individuals.”

    It would be nice if they posted those agreements on the wall, next to the other information about the work. (And if lenders don’t want it posted, then maybe they should ask themselves why.)

  • Morris Museum of Art: “Sketching artwork in the museum’s permanent galleries for educational purposes is allowed. Sketching or drawing from art within the Morris Museum of Art for the purpose of resale or reproduction is strictly prohibited. … Additional restrictions may be placed on sketching paintings and objects on loan from other museums. Please check with a visitor services representative before sketching in the galleries. You will be asked to sign a permission-to-sketch form and comply with the museum’s policies stated within it.”

    Where to start? Resale or reproduction is strictly prohibited? One wonders how the curators at the Morris Museum received their art education. Did they manage to personally visit every museum where a work of art they wanted to see was displayed? And a “permission-to-sketch” form — the word “Orwellian” is overused, but sometimes nothing else will do. Just be glad you’ve already signed your permission-to-think form.

  • National Gallery of Victoria (Australia): Sketching and notetaking are permitted in Temporary Exhibitions and Permanent collection areas of the National Gallery of Victoria. This policy is subject to the discretion of individual or institutional lenders to temporary exhibitions provided the following conditions are met: … It is important to note that some individual or institutional lenders may forbid sketching and note taking as part of the conditions of loan set out in loan agreements and/or exhibition contracts or are not allowed under the terms of a government indemnity or insurance policy. In these instances, the Exhibitions Manager will issue separate instructions to security staff. We ask that all visitors to understand that in these circumstances the NGV has no option but to abide by the conditions determined by lenders.

    Of all the policies here, this one seems the most rational. The full text shows that they’re mainly concerned about crowding and logistics, and when it comes to restrictions by lenders, the gallery more or less openly admits that it regrets that restrictions are ever necessary. This policy apparently results in part from a protest by the free pencil movement — congratulations to them for a successful protest. Again, I hope the National Gallery will post the exact text of lender-requested restrictions right next to the covered works.

The copying-is-stealing mentality can create some awfully strange situations. This 2005 post at BoingBoing is about a sketcher (a second-grader) at the North Carolina Museum of Art: “A museum guard told Julia’s parents that sketching was prohibited because the great masterpieces are copyright protected, a concept that young Julia did not understand until her mother explained the term.” Don’t worry Julia, you’re not alone.

5 Comments on "Sketching is copying; copying is stealing. Coming soon: no breathing."

  1. very few people tend to stop and think about how our underfunded museums collect revenue without becoming a shop with a bit of culture on the side. selling likenesses of these collections is one of very few options open to museums who don’t charge for entry. often enough, even if the gallery owns a painting, its copyright won’t belong to the museum, but to a large picture library such as getty. i know a couple of museums who actually PAY the license their OWN collections so the can sell mugs, postcards, novelty tv trays, whatever.

    and, from experience, you’ll find that sketching etc being forbidden is down to archaic conservation rules the public rarely understand or have any sympathy towards. secondly, not all museum employees know as much about copyright as they’d like to think, and many collections have massive backlogs in paperwork and many songs, records, objects, films, are trapped in limbo this way.

    in some contexts, ‘copyright infringement’ is used in the same way as ‘health an safety hazard’ or ‘not covered by our insurance’ to fob people off – and this is down to ignorance and lack of proper training, and woefully low front of house wages for museum workers.

    1. Rubbish.

      Drawing and painting is a skill only acquired by studying the Great Masters.

      1. i can’t tell what your comment has to do with mine, or whether you are trying to be funny. of course people should be allowed to sketch their own national collections, they own the collections and should have access. i’m just trying to explain, in realistic terms, why the situations mentioned in the post may have come about.