Public Museums Followup: Overcharging online too?

National Gallery of Canada ticket counter
Following up on developments (and/or degenerations) in access to Canada’s public museums, I was struck by net-law expert Michael Geist’s latest Star column. In it he notes that some prominent Canadian museums have been overcharging for digital images of artworks that are technically in the public domain.

As Geist explains,

In 2006, London’s famed Victoria and Albert Museum became the first museum to erase charges for the reproduction of images in scholarly books and magazines, to considerable acclaim.

According to documents obtained under the Access to Information Act, however, the National Gallery of Canada appears to be taking the opposite approach, treating public-domain works as a profit centre.

The Access to Information Act records covered requests to the National Gallery for copies of public-domain artworks between February 2006 and January 2007. The gallery received approximately 250 such requests, and imposed contractual restrictions on use of the images and levied an average fee of $379.

Internal documents reveal the gallery often added hundreds of dollars to the total cost of fulfilling a request, despite the fact that the images were in the public domain.

It’s interesting to me that the public museums in question seem to be doing the same thing online that they are architecturally—charging the public for the right to view objects which are actually in the public domain. (The National Gallery used to be free. Now it’s free only Thursdays after 5pm for the permanent collection.)

And whether it’s admission fees or web and print reproduction fees, I have to say I agree with Geist’s conclusion:

Some dismiss these fees as a cost of doing business at a time when museums are struggling to make ends meet. The reality, however, is that the fees impede access to and use of Canadian culture and, ultimately, undermine claims for enhanced taxpayer support.

The time has come for Canada’s museums to remove these costs and contractual barriers to Canadian heritage.

Some might disagree with me extending Geist’s argument to actual physical museum access. But really… should I only expect to have adequate access to publicly owned art collections when I’m playing Second Life?

Image of museum ticketing booth from National Gallery of Canada

4 comments

  1. Thanks for posting this. The problem of rising fees charged by museums funded by us (taxpayers) has been bugging me for a long time, and it’s interesting to think about the issues Geist raises regarding archival materials access.

    BC Archives is (or was) another big offender, IMO. I’m not sure where they stand now re. fees, but only a year or so ago, they charged liberally if you wanted to illustrate an article with an image they held — even though these images already belong to us (Joe & Jane Public).

    It’s one thing to want to charge commercial users who might, say, want to incorporate those pictures in some kind of big-budget ad campaign, but to have a one-size-fits-all fee structure that applies to everyone (even tiny outfits like a local magazine), well, that’s just ridiculous.

    And it’s exactly as Geist says: it keeps those materials out of the public view, and thereby diminishes access to Canadian culture, which in turn makes it trickier to ask taxpayers for support.

  2. It’s a similar deal with the CBC. From a Documentary Organisation of Canada press release [PDF] about the need for copyright reform:

    Avi Lewis has a sadly ironic copyright story: “For The Take, I wanted a clip of my grandfather’s most famous phrase: Corporate Welfare Bums, from a stump speech in the 1972 election campaign. It would have cost me $187.50 per second to buy back my own family history. Our public broadcaster, under relentless and damaging financial pressure, has long been forced to treat its precious publicly funded archives as a market-driven revenue source. David Lewis coined that famous phrase in the public interest. CBC kept it at public expense and in the public interest, and I wanted to use it in the public interest. But that history was out of reach for our publicly funded documentary.”

  3. Hey, I didn’t know about the CBC, or think of it in that way before, Jonathan. Thanks for the tip. Really crazy. I was just looking at a book on arts access this weekend that cheekily prints the repro rate for each pic in the book right in the caption. What if the rest of our media worked that way?

    Laura, thanks for the VMC link. I am glad to see more exhibitions go online in a free way. It is important for those who don’t have the cash, desire, or transport to live in or visit Canada’s downtown arts museums. But unfortunately it’s often an afterthought. Hopefully not so in the future.

    Yule, I am also even more with Geist on this one after the ROM’s new “access announcement” made today. Here’s more info: http://spacingtoronto.ca/2008/04/21/the-rom-can-well-pretend-to-be-accessible/

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