Buildings, collections, and exhibitions. These three facets of museums are top of mind for the art world. But apart from the people who run, support, and are served by them, art museums have a fourth asset-rich component: intellectual property. And intellectual property (IP) is proving to be a key concern for the next generation, as the digital capture and dissemination of information continues unabated.

The buzzword “content” is how we have come to summarize the aggregate of IP captured in databases, catalogues, print and digital images, recorded educational programs, and ephemera. It is a concise but inhibiting term, since each variant of IP created by those working for art museums has different challenges.

Content is being served up in new ways. Flat screen televisions with high-definition will soon replace computer monitors, merging the content provided by a few hundred cable and broadcast sources with the content available on millions of increasingly animated web-based resources. The declining eyesight of baby-boomers will accelerate this transition. For better eyes, PDAs will replace laptops as hybrid cell phones with improved screen quality introduce video channels. Out-of-home screens, digital billboards, and other new display technologies are already challenging traditional content outlets. And so on.

But for content holders, the changing platforms for distribution are largely an expensive spectacle. It is connectivity speed that will drive the coming shake-up of intellectual property rules. If no one can have access to a piece of property (as in a dial-up world), its value is limited. On the other hand, if everyone can have instant, robust access, its value plummets. We are skipping the middle step – highly-priced online content will be a fleeting proposition.

Ironically, the connectivity map of the world is upside down. The more developed the nation, the earlier it adopted information networks, and thus the more it is invested in old technology. Developing countries and those far from population centers are swiftly obtaining the fastest and most powerful means of connecting. The United States is falling behind in connectivity, because the arrival of WiMax, which speeds broadband across distances of 30 miles at a clip, is fast rendering Wi-Fi and terrestrial Internet access (DSL, ISDN) the technology of the past. Countries in Asia and Latin America are early adopters of this innovation.

One outcome of faster connections will be to speed demand for more interactivity, moving images, sound, rich data, and animation. End users are increasingly seeking online experiences, not isolated pockets of information. The winners of the battle over who owns access to still digital images of artworks are destined to have a Pyrrhic victory. End users interested in creativity will find their way, legally or not, to new kinds of multimedia destinations. Not just to the official websites of major arts institutions, but to the “folksonomic” destinations created simultaneously by millions of end users via ‘wiki’ applications, allowing anyone to add or edit content.

The obstacle to reaching this audience? The tight rein that content-holders keep on their IP, whether large entertainment companies or museums. There are signs that the reins will be loosened. One example of the rumbling power of this brave new world came when New York’s Museum of Modern Art happened upon a guerilla iPod tour in their ranks in the spring of 2005, made by a professor for his students. In a fast-paced sequence of developments, MoMA reacted by making its audio content downloadable for free from its website, and then by the summer made its audio content free in the museum itself. If one professor can alter the IP policies of America’s most commercially ambitious museum, there are many more bottom-up surprises to come.

And make no mistake; consumer demand for rich content is changing. While previous generations sought authoritative information, today’s young audiences make minimal investments in traditionally authoritative sources. A trinity of features – “do-it-yourself” claims for attention, familiar/gossipy tone, and room for the end-user’s interaction, is overwhelming traditional ways of reaching an audience, with profound effects on art museums to come. The questions that the museum community faces in this fast-evolving milieu are many, but here are three short-term challenges requiring solutions:

Who is going to prefer official content mounted on a museum website if you can have access to a gossipy, pirated version tailored with commentary by playful but well-informed bloggers of your choice?

Who will pay for high-quality digital images of artworks if images scanned from postcards or catalogues look just as good on the next-generation PDA – the one with music and a sharp video screen?

Who will subsidize print-published research at museums and universities if real-time, interactive resources are deemed more practical by scholars prepared to pay modest rates for access?

Whatever solutions are preferred, the landscape looks like this: museums will ultimately embrace file-sharing, and overcome their fear of loss of authority. Curatorial scholarship will likely find its way near the top of the information pyramid, but is best served up in a more accessible format if it has the public at large in mind. Furthermore, the way forward will likely be with a combination of free content and licensable, high-resolution multimedia content, most economically built by consortia instead of by one museum at a time. The content will have to be updated, open to folksonomy protocols that encourage end users to contribute to databases, and that emphasize live features (real-time tours of shows and behind-the-scenes experiences) that people will pay a modest amount for. Museums will begin focusing on those things that younger audiences will be prepared to download for a micro-payment or subscription, alongside ample free offerings.

Today’s flying fingers on keyboards 24 hours a day from time zone to time zone are toying with the fate of the $65 exhibition catalogue that costs $11 to ship and sits on a shelf as eyes are glued to screens. Art museums will soon find themselves exploring collaborative solutions to the inexorable march of digitization and its concomitant demand for rich content, easy access, and open source technology. And in the process, we can all hope, this will spawn demand in a new generation for the experience of original artworks in museum galleries.