The Uffizi threatened to sue Pornhub last summer for exploiting one of its masterpieces in a “classic nudes” movie. The adult streaming site presented the question, “Some people think of museums as boring, stuffy, or dull.”

“But what if we told you they had a priceless collection of porn?” The film uses artworks such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, which is held at the Uffizi in Florence, to re-enact sensual episodes throughout art history.

The illegal nudes were quickly removed by Pornhub, sparking a discussion over who regulates the copying of cultural artifacts that are no longer protected by copyright and are in the public domain.

Museums have traditionally been protective of high-resolution reproductions of their artworks, demanding exorbitant prices for pictures or venue rental. There are many reasons for this, including copyright protection, the prevention of forgeries, and the management of valuable money from brand relationships.

The selling of images from the Uffizi’s collection brought in roughly €1 million (£850,000) in income in 2019. Global licensed goods sales in that year were $293 billion (£214 billion), with the art and non-profit sectors witnessing the most increase.

In surprising partnerships ranging from luxury lingerie to KFC packaging, museums across the globe are increasingly capitalizing on the intellectual property of their treasured treasures. China is the market leader in this sector, with goods sales at Beijing’s Palace Museum allegedly bringing in $222 million (£162 million) in 2018.

After Covid caused a drop in visitor numbers, these agreements provide a lifeline for cash-strapped attractions. The number of visitors to the Victoria and Albert Museum dropped by 97 percent to 130,000, requiring the museum to reduce its hours to five days a week. Admissions and finances, according to the executive board, may never recover to pre-pandemic levels.

However, when in-person engagement decreased, sales of licensed items increased dramatically, with homeware becoming the greatest seller. “Consumers have been redecorating their homes with new furnishings, wallpapers, and wall art,” said Lauren Sizeland, the V&A’s director of licensing.

The V&A took on 22 new licensees and offered 1,400 licensed items, ranging from wall paintings to jewelry and handicraft, while its doors were closed.

It’s not a novel concept to sell museum treasures. Picasso’s name and signature were leased to Citroen in 1998 for an unknown price given to the painter’s son, Claude, the artist’s estate’s court-appointed administrator.

Since 2019, the Louvre, the world’s most visited museum, has increased its licensing activities, collaborating with DS Automobiles, Swatch, and Ladurée, a macaron bakery. According to Le Monde, the Louvre’s brand agreements produced €4.5 million in 2020, up from €2.7 million in 2019.

It inked a four-year contract with Uniqlo, a Japanese store, and debuted a graphic T-shirt line inspired by the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and Liberty Leading the People paintings this year.

The Louvre-licensed phone covers and gadget accessories made by Hong Kong-based business Casetify feature these recognizable ladies. Some designs are merely photographs of the artworks, while others are created to resemble actual tickets. In 2021, the British Museum collaborated with Chinese beauty manufacturer Zeesea to release an eyeshadow pallet inspired by ancient Egyptian artifacts.

These works are daring and modern, piqueing the attention of younger, worldwide audiences in pop culture. Museums are turning to goods to reach Gen Z consumers, who are more inclined to access museum information online rather than in person, according to Yizan He, co-founder of Artistory, a Shanghai-based intellectual property licensing business. The goal is to make their archives accessible to everyone.

Designers at Artistory like imaginative mashups of classic masterpieces (Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is a certain winner). “Rather than slapping paintings on products, we create original patterns inspired by artworks and share them on TikTok and livestreamed events,” he said. “We want to take something old and boring and turn it into something new and exciting.”

These corporate employment, however, have enraged many who believe museums’ cultural legacy is in jeopardy. The Louvre and Airbnb collaborated on a competition in 2019 to let one couple to spend the night in its hallowed halls.

“This use of a public institution for commercial purposes by a digital giant is a shocking political gesture,” said Ian Brossat, Paris’ deputy mayor of housing, in a letter to France’s culture minister, Franck Riester. Brossat has advocated for a ban on Airbnb homes in the city center of Paris, claiming that they are driving Parisians out of the market.

Others wonder why galleries should be allowed to profit from artworks that are no longer protected by copyright, which in the United Kingdom and the European Union lasts for 70 years after the creator’s death. The work is thereafter free to use as intellectual property, while museums in certain countries, such as France, might claim eternal moral rights to an author’s work.

This grants custodians the right of attribution as well as the authority to remove harmful copies.

Museums acting as trustees of long-dead artists whose works were no longer under copyright, according to Dr Grischka Petri, a lawyer and art historian at the University of Glasgow, was problematic. “When a museum wants to monopolize its public domain collections and prohibit reproductions, it becomes interesting from a copyright standpoint.”

Museums, he added, risked seeming “hypocritical” if they encouraged the commercialization of their collections while simultaneously prohibiting others from using them for moral reasons. “Many ancient artworks already work in a soft pornographic way,” Petri said.

Institutions have been reconsidering their approach in recent years, since the internet has resulted in an explosion of low-quality copies. Open-access digitization has been advanced by Covid. The V&A’s online site, which allows visitors to search and see photos of 1.5 million artifacts from the museum’s collections, had record levels of traffic last year.

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam takes it a step further by allowing visitors to download high-resolution pictures of works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Van Gogh. “If they want a Vermeer on their toilet paper, I’d rather have a very high-quality image… than a very bad reproduction,” said Taco Dibbits, director of collections.

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.