By this point, you may have already heard of the “Google Art Project”: Google’s latest effort to increase universal access to the world’s information. The project, which was launched on February 1st, allows internet users to remotely access works of art in seventeen museums, including the MOMA and Frick Collection in New York, the Palace of Versailles, London’s National Gallery, and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The Project, which employs the same technology utilized in Google’s “Street View” feature, allows individuals to virtually “walk” the halls of galleries and provides remarkably high-resolution reproductions that permit the inspection of individual brush strokes.

As with Google’s other ventures — such as Google Books — this latest project has the potential to raise several copyright concerns. Initially, pursuant to statutory law, copyright owners have the exclusive right to control the reproduction of a work (such as, for example, a photograph of a painting.)  While many of the artists responsible for these museum works have been dead for centuries; several are still alive and can claim existing legal rights to these reproductions. Moreover, some artists – such as Picasso who lived until 1973 – died recently enough such that many of his works may not have slipped into the public domain.   Determining which works have fallen into the public domain requires a surprisingly convoluted calculation based on the date that the work was created, published, and/or registered and the lifespan of the author. Consequently, until these issues are resolved, users embarking on a Google Art tour may find the occasional digitally blurred work interspersed with the crystal clear reproductions.  (Click here to view an attempt to present the byzantine rules of copyright terms in a comprehensible format.)
In addition to the artists’ rights, individual museums could attempt to assert rights to certain aspects of the works (apart from the underlying art.) This could include, by way of example, the specific arrangement of sculptural pieces or any sufficiently unique manner in which artistic works are displayed. It remains to be seen whether any museum would attempt to make such a claim; however, such tactics would not be surprising if museums begins to view Google’s Project as a threat to revenue garnered from ticket and gift shop sales. Finally, an additional level of copyright is proposed in the FAQ section of the Google Art Project website in which Google claims exclusive rights to images “apart from the underlying art.” 
It remains to be seen how – or if – these potential issues will be resolved. Nevertheless, while many may disagree as to the underlying rights involved, only the most jaded IP enthusiast would dispute the public benefit of providing universal access to the world’s artistic masterpieces.