Opinions Research

Museums and image reproduction fees

An interesting article by Jane Masséglia on museums charging reproduction fees can be found here.

Anyone with experience of the process of acquiring photographs from museum files or archives will know how varied, complex and financially horrifying it can be.

Recently I had the pleasure myself to clear the rights of four old field-photos for an upcoming publication about a private collection of African art. One museum in the UK’s image service demanded £ 75,- for each image and permission to reproduce it. A second museum asked € 100,- for each photo, while communication went painstakingly slow (four weeks and counting). In both cases the field-photos were almost a century old, made by early explorers and ending up in the museum by donation.

A small fee of course might not sound unreasonable. Museums need funds, after all. But what if this commercial attitude leads researchers to decide they can’t afford to discuss a particular photo? Then, of course, there is the bigger question of access. Do museums in receipt of public funds have a responsibility to make their holdings available for research? And in recovering the cost of digitising and administering their holdings, should they be allowed to make a profit from charging non-commercial users? Or are they right that if researchers are looking to get ahead by using their holdings, they should, like the keyring-makers and poster-printers, have to pay for them? But even if we accept that argument, the issue remains of how museums could have arrived at such vastly differing fees for the same service.

Luckily a new wind is going through museum land and more and more institutions are offering high-resolution pictures of objects in their collection free of charge; a fine examples being the Rijksmuseum in The Netherlands. Another noteworthy project is Artstor’s Images for Academic Publishing program, making publication-quality images from many bigger institutions (like the Metropolitan) available for use in scholarly publications free of charge. “Sharing is what museums need to learn to do”, as Deborah Ziska, a spokeswoman for the National Gallery of Art stated in a related New York Times article. I couldn’t agree more!

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