NAGOYA--Masterpieces by artists such as Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt and Ito Jakuchu can now be downloaded and used freely from the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, which has posted more than 1,200 artworks in the public domain.

The Aichi museum is joining the global trend toward promoting the free use of out-of-copyright works, which is not commonly done in Japan.

The pieces of art were made available on the searchable database on the museum’s website (https://jmapps.ne.jp/apmoa/) in mid-November, including other masterpieces and artworks.

One can easily download them and use them for both commercial and nonprofit purposes.

The images are expected to be shared on social networking sites or used as raw materials to create new artworks. However, the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art requires that users make clear that the artworks are owned by the museum and whether they are trimmed.

The service was suggested by a curator to coincide with the museum’s Web system update in fiscal 2018.

The move came as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Amsterdam National Museum (Rijksmuseum) and other noted museums across the world enabled people to use the images of their public-domain properties for any purpose without charge over the past several years.

Only a few facilities in Japan, such as the Adachi Museum in Tokyo, have joined the global trend.

According to the results of a questionnaire survey conducted by The Asahi Shimbun in 2017, 36 of the 148 surveyed public-run museums in Japan rent out photos of their public-domain art productions to those who want to use the images for purposes other than research and promotion of the museums.

Although nearly 70 percent provide the photos of public-domain works free of charge, almost all of them require users to submit requests in advance so details of their use can be screened.

Explaining why, the museums cited as the main reason the “concerns that the images could be used or shared in ways we do not like.”

That means museum operators are trying to strictly control the use of images of artworks they own.

Going against the practice, the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art decided to allow free use of its masterpieces’ photos in line with the “global standard,” though it is a regional museum.

Behind the decision is a belief that images of public-domain works “should be shared in society,” so that famous artistic productions can be easily printed on T-shirts or used to create new pieces of art without the owners’ consent.

“Most artworks kept by public museums are bought with taxpayers’ money, so public-domain works are properties of citizens,” said Kazuho Soeda, a curator at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art. “The Copyright Law and other regulations include no provisions that ban free image use.”

The 2017 study showed that museum operators are concerned about the possibility that “allowing free use of images could lead to a decreased number of visitors, because people would be satisfied just by viewing the photos.”

Soeda said, in reality, it’s the other way around.

“Those who hope to download images must be art lovers,” he said. “Promoting their free use will motivate those individuals to visit the museums to view the works.”

According to Soeda, the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art allows public-domain productions to be photographed at special exhibitions on a trial basis, but the move has not resulted in decreased sales of pictorial records of the exhibits.

“There are no disadvantages in permitting the free use of images of public-domain art pieces,” Soeda asserted.

Separately, the Japanese government has begun efforts to open to the public photos of artworks in the public domain.

For example, the National Institutes for Cultural Heritage set up a website called ColBase (https://colbase.nich.go.jp/) in 2017, where images of a total of 9,500 items owned by four national museums it operates have been made downloadable at no charge.

But high-resolution photos are not covered by the program. The operator of each museum, working with outside agents, sells high-resolution photos at rates from several thousand yen (several tens of dollars) to hundreds of thousands of yen.

Masanori Aoyagi, former commissioner for the Cultural Affairs Agency who also served as director-general of the National Museum of Western Art, criticized the “policy of different prices for different resolution levels for being inconsistent.”

“Sharing of public-domain works in society consists of making their images open to the public and allowing people to freely photograph articles on display,” said Aoyagi. “But state-run museums are doing things by halves in the process of making images open, and some of them do not permit photos taken of their artistic productions to be used freely.

“Japanese facilities lag behind their counterparts overseas.”

PRESERVATION THROUGH DIGITIZATION

To release the images of public-domain artworks at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, 11 curators spent an entire year making preparations between their regular duties.

While the Aichi museum uses positive film, not negative film, like many other museums to better reproduce the vivid coloring of artworks, it commissioned an agent to scan the films after sorting them according to the works’ names and years of creation.

A total of 6,000 images, including ones of non-public-domain pieces, were converted into digital format at a cost of 2.1 million yen. The digitized photos are not managed in a dedicated but expensive server but in a rental online cloud system costing only 30,000 yen a month.

Images available on the site of the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art boast such a high resolution that they can be printed beautifully on paper about the size of a postcard. The museum sends much higher-quality images when requests come in.

Previously, the positive film images were scanned each time their images are provided to outsiders, adding to the risk of degradation. The digitization enables the films to be permanently kept at a repository.

Allowing for free use of images has also led to the elimination of the need for museum staff to accept and screen requests for providing images.