A panel of judges has ruled in favor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art over a copyright case. Florida-based photographer Lawrence Marano alleged that the museum stole his 1982 photo of the band Van Halen in the 2019 exhibition Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock and Roll.
As reported by Artnet, Marano’s initial case was dismissed in July of 2020 by a U.S. District judge who stated that Marano and his attorney “failed to show why the Met’s use of [the image] is not protected by the fair use exception.”
The museum’s use of the image, according to the ruling, fell under educational purposes, which classifies its placement as fair use. Marano appealed that decision, but a panel of three judges in New York’s Second Circuit court upheld the initial ruling.
“Whereas Marano’s stated purpose in creating the photo was to show ‘what Van Halen looks like in performance,’ the Met exhibition highlights the unique design of the Frankenstein guitar and its significance in the development of rock n’ roll instruments,” the judges wrote in their five-page summary.
The judges continued by stating the use of the image by the museum in no way detracted from the commercial value of the photo nor did it diminish the value of the image.
“The Second Circuit’s decision in the Marano case is an important one recognizing that museums, as cultural institutions, have the freedom to use photographs that are historical artifacts to enrich their presentation of art objects to the public,” Linda Steinman, an attorney for the Met, said in a statement to Artnet. “The Metropolitan Museum of Art values the contributions of all artists, including photographers, and also appreciates that fair use is a key tool for the visual arts community. The mission of the Met and all museums is to provide the public with access to art—and this important decision protects, indeed strengthens, this important societal role.”
Marano’s attorney did not provide a statement to Artnet when asked about the ruling.
The United States Copyright Office defines fair use as a legal doctrine that promotes the freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works under certain circumstances. Defined under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, Fair Use protects criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research when it comes to publishing or using copyrighted material.
While this sounds straightforward, the concept of fair use can find itself muddled because of the ambiguity of those protections. In this case, the judges looked at the 2006 Bill Graham Archives v. Dorling Kindersley Ltd. case for precedent. In that case, Dorling Kindersley published a Grateful Dead coffee table book that included seven Grateful Dead event posters. Bill Graham Archives was initially contacted for permission to use the images, but negotiations fell through. Dorling Kindersley used the images anyway and the Bill Graham Archives sued. The Archives lost their suit, as the publication of the images was deemed to be fair use.
Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.