I'm developing a web site for an artist, and I need to do a demo: can I use famous old paintings (from around 1400)?
Does the owner of the original painting (like a museum) also own the copyright to a work of art?

2 Answers 2


YES, if you can get an image of it, you can use it

A work that old is not under copyright protection in any country in the world. Under US law any work published in 1924 or before (as of 2019) is in the public domain. Unpublished works may be protected for up to 120 years after creation under US law. But no work that is over 600 years old has any copyright protection.

In any case, merely owning the physical work does not mean owning the copyright. In the case of a work sufficiently recent that it is under copyright, say from the 1970s, the copyright initially belongs to the artist. If the artist sells or gives the painting to a museum (or anyone else), the artist retains the copyright unless that is explicitly included in the deal, in a written agreement. If the artist dies, the copyright is inherited, just as any other property that the artist leaves, as directed by will or law.

If a museum owns a painting that is out of copyright, it can restrict access to it and prevent people from photographing or copying it, because it can restrict what people do on its property. But if an exact copy (known as a "slavish copy") gets out, the museum has no copyright in it, because making a slavish copy does not create an original, copyrightable work under US law. See the case of Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp., 36 F. Supp. 2d 191 (S.D.N.Y. 1999) and Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991) The law may be different in non-US countries, but the reasoning of the Bridgeman case has bene followed elsewhere.

A "slavish" copy is one that attempts to reproduce the original as exactly as possible, without adding or removing or changing anything. A photo of a painting in a frame on a stand with people standing beside it is not a slavish copy. The images of art one sees in books on art are usually slavish copies. So are the images one sees on museum web sites, as a rule. The term implies that the copyist had no more freedom than a slave in making the copy. At least that is the metaphor. Slavish copies do not get separate copyrights because they are not original works. Photos of 3D works such as sculptures require choice of angle, lighting, etc, sufficient t make them original works -- no two photographers will produce quite the same image of a sculpture. But some courts have ruled that wire-frame models of 3D works of art are slavish copies and not protected by copyright.


The other answer, doesn't define "slavish copy" well. That term means "artless" copies or photographs of public domain art. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/museum-paintings-copyright_b_1867076

However, that does not mean that any photo of a public domain work is OK to reproduce. If the photo is in some way a work of art itself and copyrighted, you can not use it without permission.

So basically if you post your own photo of the work or an "artless" photo of it you are ok, but some photos are considered art and not OK to post.

  • I added a paragraph on what is a "slavish" copy to my answer. Thanks for pointing out that this was unclear. Commented Apr 1, 2019 at 15:01

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