The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) recently announced its "acquisition" of the typographic "@" symbol. This unprecedented move marks a significant step into the unexplored realm of "acquiring" non-physical objects.
As bloggers, critics, and fans erupt, many question the artistic merits and legal logistics of the conveyance, the museum's only “free” acquisition. In order to acquire the "@" symbol, MoMA's Senior Curator Paola Antonelli went through the standard acquisitions processes internally within the museum, including pitching the idea to the museum's Design and Acquisition Committee and researching the symbol's long and storied history. The next standard step in the acquisition process would have been for MoMA to contact the owner of the objet d’art to begin negotiations for the terms of sale. However, "@" is a non-object existing in the public domain. Like the English language or Einstein's E = MC2, the "public domain" refers to works, ideas and information which are intangible to private ownership and/or which are available for use by all members of the public. Therefore, "@" is not covered by intellectual property rights at all. Look down at your keyboard, we all use "@" and we all own it—or conversely no one owns it. Thereby, MoMA cannot acquire or obtain any property rights or copyright privileges to the symbol. There is no need for a written contract, a sale price, or a discussion of any of the main deal points including without limitation: promotion, framing, insurance, storage or crating and shipping. MoMA's "acquisition" (we really can't write that without quotation marks) is complete and all deal points "negotiated.? MoMA can now proudly display the "@" non object in its hallowed halls in between Picasso's paintings and Serra's sculptures.
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