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Copyrighting becomes art form

Imagine if every time you walked into a museum, you had to sign something saying you won't steal any of the art. Web browsers are being asked to do just that.

Imagine that every time you went to a museum, you had to sign something promising not to steal the art. Web browsers are being asked to do the digital equivalent of this when they enter online archives, purportedly to protect copyrighted materials.

As an increasing number of archives, museums, historical societies, and educational institutions put their collections online, they are taking such measures to protect their materials and to address copyright issues both in the United States and abroad.

Later this month, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco will launch a Web page for the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, posting 65,000 prints, drawings, engravings, and 19th-century photographs online.

Not only will browsers be able to check out the art, but they will also be able to search the archives. For example, a college student could use the archive to research her dissertation on Rembrandt, finding several examples of his work almost instantly, an Auchenbach employee explained. Or a sixth-grader could find a collection of master works featuring bovine animals for a report on grazing.

The Foundation's digital archives already have helped employees immeasurably by allowing them to find pieces of artwork in minutes, a process that used to take hours of sifting through boxes and drawers to find.

The new Web site, called The Thinker, also will offer viewers another opportunity: a chance to actually see the collection. Right now, the collection has no permanent space and relies strictly on exhibitions. Even if it had a space, it could not be displayed year-round because continued exposure to light would damage it.

But with the new virtual venue comes the legal issues--primarily, how to protect copyrighted material.

Living artists, especially, have to be vigilant about having their rights infringed when their work is displayed on the Web, said Mark Traphagen, an attorney with the Software Publishers Association in Washington.

"The thing that artists and software companies have to fear about the Internet is that so many Internet users think the copyright doesn't apply to them," Traphagen said.

Because something's online doesn't mean it's free for the printing, Traphagen explained. The same copyright laws that apply to print media also apply to the online world.

Some online archive sites have gotten around that user ignorance by actually telling them that the work is copyrighted and explaining what that means. Then they ask them to agree not to reproduce the work. They are not only protecting the artists, but also themselves, especially if their business is to license the work.

Corbis, a privately held company founded by Bill Gates in 1989, features a Web site with more than 4,000 digitally archived images in its collection of 800,000, which are available for licensing to outside sources.

The site, which includes digital photos from the company's touted Bettmann and Ansel Adams collections, is primarily used as a marketing tool. But when it comes to potential copyright infringement, it leaves the user no room to question the policy.

Before a browser can look at the screen-size picture, users must agree to "limit use of the content contained in the Corbis web site to personal, non-commercial use; and not to distribute or transmit the content to anyone else."

Just in case the user is not honest, Corbis has taken extra safeguards. Screen-size shots can only be seen with Corbis's own viewer, and the pictures bear "watermarks" that can be removed only while being viewed.

In addition, Laurie McEachron of Corbis said, the images have a fairly low resolution that look fine on your computer screen but are "probably not commercially viable," McEachron said. They also are encrypted. "If you want a good, high-resolution file, you need to come and license that," she said.

Corbis's long-term goal is to make all its images, now available on CD-ROMs, accessible through the Web. But, as it marches into the world of the Web, Corbis, like many archivists, will be watching online copyright issues nationally and abroad, where copyright laws are not always as readily enforced.

China, for example, is quickly getting online. The U.S., however, is still working on an international online copyright treaty that would protect copyrighted material on the Web, Traphagen said.

"What scares me is China is installing high-capacity phone lines at the rate of 20 million a year," he said. "If we don't get China to acknowledge copyright on the Internet, there's a great big copyright haven that's waiting to be created. The hurdles are both in the United States and overseas."