NEW YORK •In 2009, Tim Berners- Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, told a TED conference that if cultural institutions opened their collections without limitations, they would "be used by other people to do wonderful things, in ways that they could never have imagined."
His call for open access has grown into a cultural movement. In museum boardrooms, unrestricted sharing is a current fixation. The new openness, loosely known as "open content", calls for curators to put holdings online without copyright restrictions.
As with open-source software, anybody can use the material and for any purpose. Want to turn a Cezanne still life into a T-shirt or a tattoo? Come and get it.
Mr James Cuno, president and chief executive of the J. Paul Getty Trust, which shares 100,714 images from the Getty Institute and J. Paul Getty Museum, said: "We hope people will use our images to enrich their lives. But they're free to make shower curtains or stationery."
The open-content museum dates to 2011, when the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam made the first of 208,000 images available for download at no cost after curators found more than 10,000 low-quality scans of one of its Vermeers online. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art and Yale University Art Gallery followed.
Today, more than 50 cultural institutions have opened their collections for unrestricted use. The number is increasing steadily as administrators come to recognise the value of circulating work to a wider audience online and inviting the public to study and use it at will.
"Most of us see it as part of a museum's obligation in this century to make this content available in this way," said Mr Koven J. Smith, director of digital adaptation at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas. "The days of art museums being reluctant to release content are drawing to a close."
But some institutions, such as the French National Library, have resisted on the grounds that giving away the licensing rights erodes its authority and undercuts its control over valuable images - the most popular of which can earn essential revenue when sold for a download fee or merchandised with holiday cards and T-shirts.
Inertia may also prevent museums from adopting open content. It requires no small amount of institutional will, not to mention expense, to digitise collections, post them online with identifying text and untangle the legal obstacles to open use.
Fourteen art museums took a meaningful step last February by agreeing to pool their collections with linked open data, a connective tissue that allows databases to converse in a way that goes beyond simple keyword searches.
When completed a year from now, the system will recognise that a doctoral candidate researching John Singer Sargent at the Dallas Museum of Art might also want to know more about 19th-century portraiture and will pull relevant texts and images from 13 other linked museums.
NEW YORK TIMES