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?