A colleague recently asked my opinion about an interesting question. Would there be any copyright interest held by a museum that was displaying a classical vase for the first time? The root of the question was the idea that if the museum was displaying an object that had recently been unearthed (quite literally), it might be said to be publishing a previously unpublished work.
My opinion was primarily based on the inapplicability of the terms published and unpublished to this situation, but the question offers a broader opportunity to review an aspect of copyright law that seems to confuse a great many people.
One of the characteristics of intellectual property rights ownership is that it is entirely independent from the ownership of a physical object that embodies intellectual property. If I purchase a painting by a contemporary artist, I do not automatically get the intellectual property rights — the right to make copies or to distribute those copies, for example — along with the ownership of the object; I must contract for the transfer of the intellectual property rights, if I can, separately from the purchase of the object.
Likewise, owning an object in the public domain, like a classical vase, does not create any intellectual property rights. Simply by owning and displaying the vase the museum does not gain a copyright interest where there was no such interest before.
Displaying the vase will not have any affect on the nonexistence of copyright and probably would not meet the (vague) definition of publication. In any case, publication no longer makes much difference under our law. By current U.S. standards, an anonymous, unpublished work is protected for 120 years from creation and an anonymous work that is considered published would be protected for 95 years from creation; in either scenario, an object from classical antiquity would be well past any possible copyright protection.
3 quick caveats to this point:
1. A photograph of the vase could well have copyright protection, if it was sufficiently original to vest copyright in the photographer. Artistic decisions about lighting, angle, exposure and such probably do invest a photograph of a 3D object with the requisite level of originality.
2. Museums often charge for images of public domain objects in their collections. Even when the images do not have sufficient, separable originality to provide copyright protection, such charges can be based on the ability of the museum to restrict access to the unique physical object. For this reason many museums prohibit photography, in order to be the sole source of images of a public domain object on display.
3. There many be restrictions on the ownership of a vase from classical antiquity based on laws in the country of origin about protecting that country’s cultural patrimony, as well as international treaty obligations to which the US is a party.
More generally, this question is a variation of one I hear quite often, about whether a republication of a public domain text or image somehow revives a copyright interest in that work. Except for a small window of unpublished works that were created before 1978 and then published during the five years between 1997 and 2003, the answer is always no, not if the regular term of copyright protection has run or the work is otherwise in the public domain.