Image rights and wrongs: museums’ tardy application of copyright is a headache for scholars, argues Jane Masséglia

Obtaining image permissions for museum holdings can be costly, slow and frustrating, says Jane Masséglia

May 23, 2013

For academics working with visual culture, securing image permissions for a publication can be extraordinarily painful. For early career academics, without access to research funds but under pressure to produce a first monograph, this pain can be felt especially keenly in the wallet.

In my own field, classical archaeology, copyright is a slightly different beast than in, say, fine art. Ancient artefacts have no copyright in themselves, and obviously no living artist can claim royalties. The only relevant copyright belongs to the photographer, so it should all be quite straightforward. But 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.

After tracing a published image back to its original source, you send emails, letters and forms to the relevant museum’s image service indicating that you are writing a non-commercial book for an academic press with a short print run. Some museums reply instantly, some a few weeks later, some not at all. To the last group, you write again, perhaps this time in a different language, by email, post and even fax if you can find a machine in the faculty. But they never reply. The best you can do is take silence as assent, which is an approach that most publishers accept.

Bafflingly, one museum in the US charges $50 for a digital image sent by email but only $25 for a posted, picture-quality A4 printout. Clearly the cost and the administrative labour involved are unrelated

Many museums and collections either do not charge at all, or charge a small administrative fee and request a copy of the finished publication. God bless the British Museum, for instance: the file is attached free of charge, and with permission to reproduce it. The Wriston Art Center Galleries in Wisconsin give their permission, waive the fees and would like to know which format would be most convenient. The staff of the Museum für Abgüsse Klassischer Bildwerke München are happy to provide the image free of charge but are, they say, very fond of chocolate. You feel the warm glow of being a member of an international community working together to bring ancient objects to a wider audience.

But then you read the other replies, and your heart sinks. One museum’s image service demands €78 (£66) for each image and permission to reproduce it - and the same amount to reuse a photo you’ve bought from them before. Another asks for £120 per image and then unexpectedly begins to haggle when you express your horror. And, most bafflingly, a museum in the US charges $50 (£33) per digital image sent by email but only $25 for a posted, picture-quality A4 printout. Clearly the cost and the administrative labour involved are unrelated. There can be only one conclusion: the image services of such institutions are primarily a commercial enterprise.

This 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 object? Museums that take this approach are surely presiding over the stagnation of their own collections.

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. And this raises a worrying further question: are all image services merely applying their museum’s academic access policy? Or are they, in reality, involved in setting the fees and dictating the terms - thereby ensuring the ongoing need for expensive, well-staffed image services?

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