Use of Art Images in Gallery and Auction Catalogues: Copyright Minefield and Practical Advice

October 2011Art & Advocacy

A prominent NYC art gallery is preparing for a show highlighting a new exhibition of known and upcoming artists, some of whom are alive and others recently deceased. In preparing the show’s catalogue, which will not be sold publicly, the gallery intends, as is long-standing custom, to include high-quality photographs of all the works in the exhibition. Most photos are obtained from the living artists themselves, or from the estates or trusts that control the underlying copyrights and reproduction rights of the deceased artists’ works. In a few cases, however, the gallery will need to take its own photos. As a courtesy gesture, it intends to ask for approvals to do so from these few artists or their representatives.

A problem arises, however, when a deceased artist’s administering trust questions the provenance of one of that artist’s pieces in the exhibition and refuses to grant permission for the gallery to photograph any of the works for use in the catalogue or for any other purpose in connection with the exhibition. Can the gallery nevertheless take photos of these works and use them in its catalogue, which will not be sold or posted online but only given to attendees at the exhibition? Does it a make a difference if the catalogues will be sold or made available digitally on the gallery’s website?

As the issue revolves around copying and displaying images of the original pieces of art, the answer should lie in several provisions of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 (the “Act”). But while providing critical guidance, the Act may not entirely provide a clear-cut answer.

Copyright Protection of Artworks

Copyright protects original works of authorship from the moment of their creation. In the case of an individual artist, the artist owns the copyrights of his or her original artworks, and the copyright term lasts for the life of the artist (the “author”) plus another 70 years after his or her death. Section 106 of the Act reserves to the copyright owner specifically enumerated “exclusive” rights, which include (as relates to art) the rights of reproduction (copying), public display and distribution (by sale/assignment, rental, lease/license or lending), and the right to prepare derivative works based on the original. Notwithstanding these exclusive rights granted to the copyright owner, the Act carves out two important exceptions related to what is referred to as the “first sale doctrine” and, particularly germane to artworks, a limited display right granted to an “owner” of an original work. Before discussing these exceptions, however, it is important to recognize the significant difference between ownership of legal title and ownership of copyright.

Legal Title vs. Copyright

The purchaser of an original work of art only acquires legal title to that one original work; the underlying copyright is not transferred. Instead, copyright remains with the artist or his or her successor in interest. Thus, a consignor seller who owns an original work of art cannot grant to a gallery or auction house any rights greater than what that owner has (bare legal title) with no right to exercise any of the exclusive rights reserved to the copyright owner under Section 106 of the Act.

First Sale Doctrine

Without the statutory exceptions, there could never be a legal art exhibition or sale, as either would invoke the exclusively reserved “display” and “distribution” rights of the copyright holder. In its wisdom, however, Congress included two key exceptions in the Act that facilitate the resale of copyrighted works and grant a limited “display” right. These two exceptions are largely responsible for the legal existence of galleries, auction houses, and museums that display and sell works still under copyright.

First, Section 109, or the “first sale doctrine,” provides that:

Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106(3) [the exclusive distribution right], the owner of a particular copy or phonorecord lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner, is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy or phonorecord.

Thus, someone who owns an original work of authorship protected by copyright (referred to as a “particular copy” in Section 109) is free to sell it. That particular single work may then be resold innumerable times, without limitation, including by a gallery or auction house that is “authorized” by that owner to conduct a sale. The first sale doctrine is responsible for all aftermarket sales of copyrighted materials, including art, used records, music CDs, and books.

But what about the display right that also is exclusive to the copyright owner? Section 101 of the Act defines “display” as follows: “To ‘display’ a work means to show a copy of it, either directly or by means of a film, slide, television image, or any other device or process….”

While Section 106 reserves to the copyright owner the exclusive right to display a work publicly and the right of reproduction, Section 109(c) carves out a special limited exception (tied to the first sale doctrine) for the display of a copy of a work rightfully owned:

(c) Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106(5) [the exclusive display right], the owner of a particular copy lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner, is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to display that copy publicly, either directly or by the projection of no more than one image at a time, to viewers present at the place where the copy is located.”

This Section is responsible for permitting all “displays” of copyright-protected art by galleries, auction houses, and museums. But Section 109(c) does not on its face permit any copying of a “particular” work, including the taking of any photographs and publishing them in a catalogue or on a website. This exception is further limited to a display only to “viewers present at the place where the copy is located.”

The limited scope of the Section 109(c) exception seems pretty clear on its face. Nothing in Section 109(c) expressly permits our hypothetical gallery to take its own photos and use them in a catalogue in connection with an exhibition. Thus, the gallery’s legal fallback becomes the complex and frequently litigated concept of “fair use” under Section 107 of the Act.

Fair Use Doctrine

The “fair use doctrine” has a long, complex, and tumultuous history in the courts that is beyond the scope of this article. In brief, the doctrine is intended to permit certain uses of copyright-protected materials as exceptions to what otherwise would be infringing activity. Section 107, which codifies the doctrine, provides a non-exclusive list of such permissible uses that are then subject to a non-exhaustive list of four specific criteria courts are required to address to determine whether “fair use” exists. The relevant text of Section 107 is rather brief:

[T]he fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies … for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use, the factors to be considered shall include—

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Taking photos of artworks for use in an exhibition or auction catalogue does not fall squarely within the above-enumerated fair use examples, as such copying and display do not facially qualify as criticism, comment, news, teaching, research, or parody. (Although catalogues ultimately may be used for reference and research, that is typically not the original reason a catalogue is created.) Section 107 does not make express exception for making copies for “descriptive” or “display” uses (i.e., to simply describe and display images of what is in an exhibition). This contrasts with U.S. trademark law, which does accept a “descriptiveness” defense where a third party’s trademark is used merely descriptively and not in a trademark sense. The delineated statutory examples, however, are just that—examples—as the statute’s preamble refers to “the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies … for purposes such as….” Thus, there is room for courts to find that copying for other purposes that are consistent with the policies underlying Sections 107 and 109(c) also qualifies as fair use. Arguably, such use is also commercial in nature if the catalogue will be sold or otherwise used to market an exhibition or auction at which the art will be offered for sale; but the existence of some commercial aspect of a work has not precluded a fair use finding in all cases because it is just one of the primary factors to be considered by a court.

The fourth fair use factor is particularly significant because taking photos of art for use in a catalogue will likely not have any negative effect “upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.” But the four listed factors also must be balanced by the courts. Even where one factor might win the day, the others may be more weighted either against or in favor of fair use, and courts must not lose sight of the fundamental principles underlying the fair use doctrine.

To complicate matters, in recent years courts have also read into the fair use statute a requirement that under the first factor (“purpose and character of the use”), to be “fair” and thus not infringing, a use must also be “transformative.” This concept has become controversial as courts have disagreed over what that term means. Essentially, the “transformative” concept looks at the use made of the copy and whether it is for a purpose different from that of the original work. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc.,1 a work is generally deemed “transformative” when the new work does not “merely supersede the objects of the original creation,” but rather “adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the first with new expression, meaning, or message.” The non-exclusive permissible uses listed in Section 107, such as for commentary on or criticism of a copyrighted work (which includes parody), are themselves “transformative” uses.

As another example, Google has successfully defended its image search feature under a fair use argument. Google’s image search results display digital thumbnail images, which are reduced, lower-resolution versions of full-sized images stored on third-party computers. The image search results are generated in response to end users’ search queries for artwork, photos, and other graphical works on the Internet, thereby transforming the thumbnail copies displayed in the search results into a research tool. Google also generates advertising revenues by tying sponsored third-party ads to certain search results. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on this issue in a key 2007 decision, where it found that “the significantly transformative nature of Google’s search engine, particularly in light of its public benefit, outweighs Google’s superseding and commercial uses of the thumbnails in this case.”2

Applying the Law

Back, then, to our hypothetical exhibition catalogue. Is photographing artwork to display in an exhibition or auction catalogue “transformative”? Does it satisfy the statutory fair use factors? Can an analogy be drawn to the Google image “search” service? Under a fair use paradigm, should the first sale doctrine and the “display” exception contained in Section 109 of the Act, by implication to carry out their intended purposes, permit a “descriptive” use of art photographs simply to describe the works in an auction or gallery exhibition catalogue? Denying such limited copying and display right arguably undermines the purpose of the display exception in Section 109(c), which facilitates auctions and exhibitions, because without it the ability to promote such sales and exhibitions is severely compromised. After all, this is visual art.

These are as of yet undecided legal questions, but there are cogent arguments that such use does not meet the fair use criteria under Section 107 as it is written, because such use is essentially “commercial,” the entire image is copied (photographed), and the copy is not being used for a “transformative” purpose. On the other hand, an enticing argument can be made that, while it may not truly be “transformative,” when a photo is being used solely to identify the art in an auction or exhibition (where such display is authorized by Section 109(c) of the Act), the use of the photo in a catalogue for such limited purpose is merely incidental to a permissible use, and only improves the potential market for the work. It should therefore be considered fair use. But being the test case in the courts would be protracted and expensive.

Galleries and auction houses have always printed beautiful high-resolution catalogues with images of art not in the public domain. But the issue of seeking advance permissions rears its ugly head when an artist’s representative objects to such photographic copying because, for example, the representative does not accept the provenance. Moreover, because the owner of an artwork seeking to sell it (unless it’s the actual artist or his or her legal representative) owns only that “copy,” and does not own the underlying copyright rights, the owner cannot legally grant a gallery or auction house permission to photograph the work from a copyright standpoint.

With all this in mind, the conservative approach would be to seek permission to photograph from the rights owner, his or her agent, or a clearinghouse, and to always do so if the image will be used on the cover of a catalogue or prominently in advertisements or marketing materials to promote an auction or exhibition. In most cases, this should not be an issue because, as a practical matter, most artists or their representatives are happy with this practice as it promotes the works and creates and maintains underlying markets for the art. But in the case of a deceased artist without an estate representative or non-U.S. works under copyright, for example, licensors or clearinghouses will need to be contacted for permission, which likely will require payment of some license fee tied to the notoriety of the artist, scope of use, and number of catalogues to be printed.

Real-World Examples

Gagosian Gallery, for example, always asks living artists for permission to photograph works going into its exhibitions for use in its catalogues. Andrea Crane, a Director at Gagosian Gallery in New York, says that doing shows with living artists requires a “close collaboration with the artists,” who are pleased to cooperate. “The catalogues tend to benefit the artist by complementing the artwork,” notes Alison McDonald, Gagosian’s Director of Publications. According to Ms. McDonald, Gagosian often deals with deceased artists’ estates, which typically grant rights to photograph their artists’ works for use in catalogues. In cases where estates cannot be contacted or don’t exist, says Ms. McDonald, permissions are sought, typically for a fee, from artists’ publishers and clearinghouses, such as Visual Artists and Galleries Association (VAGA), Artists Rights Society (ARS), and the Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS). If consent cannot be obtained, an image of the artwork is not used.

Likewise, Christie’s auction house “always obtains permissions or licenses to use art images on the covers of its catalogues and in advertising collateral,” says Karen Gray, Christie’s General Counsel. Ms. Gray notes, however, that “there is a compelling fair use argument for using smaller photos of art tied to the applicable lot description within a particular catalogue, as this is consistent with the policy under Section 109(c), which permits display of the art without the copyright owner’s permission, and principles of fair use.” Catalogues retained for archival purposes (both in hard copy and digitally on Christie’s website) serve a research and reference purpose, which falls more squarely within the traditional scope of fair use.


What guidance should gallery owners and auction house directors take away from all this? Apart from consulting with intellectual property legal counsel, prudence dictates taking a conservative and practical approach, especially in these litigious days in the art world. Some well-funded gallery or auction house may one day pick the fair use catalogue fight, but it will be expensive and protracted, and the outcome will be uncertain.

1 510 U.S. 569, 579 (1994).

2 Perfect 10, Inc. v. and Google (amended opinion), 508 F.3d 1146 (9th Cir. 2007).