High and arbitrary fees

January 23, 2014

Charging high fees for the right to reproduce photographs of out-of-copyright artworks in academic publications is, as Robin Simon has written in the British Art Journal, a “loathsome practice” that obstructs “not only scholarship but also wider familiarity with [museum] collections”. Both the British Art Journal and Jane Masséglia’s opinion article in Times Higher Education (“Snap decisions”, 23 May 2013) cite the British Museum as leading the way in abolishing this practice, saying that it is among those that now offer free use of images.

This seems to be a misrepresentation of British Museum policy. According to its website, the British Museum offers free image use for “reproduction within…an academic and scholarly (peer reviewed) book, journal article or booklet”. This is providing, however, that “the publication is published by an organisation set as a charity, society, institution or trust existing exclusively for public benefit”. As no publisher, academic or otherwise, operates as a charity exclusively for public benefit, this means that in practice the British Museum offers free image use for work published by some academic publishers but not by others, on an apparently arbitrary basis. In my own experience, it waives fees for Oxford University Press and Yale University Press, but not for Ashgate.

At £49.30 plus VAT for the smallest black-and-white single reproduction of a print held by the museum, such fees determine the materials that researchers can afford to work on, narrow the field of enquiry and prevent new scholars from gaining a foothold in university faculties where a long list of publications is a prerequisite to employment.

The British Museum has some way to go before it can be held up as a model of good practice.

Patricia Smyth

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