Museums and image reproduction fees

May 30 2013

Image of Museums and image reproduction fees

Picture: BG/National Gallery

Regular readers will know that AHN takes a dim view of UK museums charging reproduction fees for scholarly and informative publications: if an object belongs to the public, then so should its image. In a timely article for the Times Higher Education, Jane Masseglia highlights the inconsistent approach taken by museums:

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.

The National Portrait Gallery is, many tell me, an offender when it comes to high image fees. Here's a letter to The Author from the historian and broadcaster Dr Ian Mortimer on his attempt to use the NPG's images, here published with his permission:

Recently I set about arranging for pictures to illustrate my forthcoming book, The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England. With a budget of £3,500, I deliberately selected images in public institutions, so the money would benefit the public as much as possible. Sadly, many of them demanded too much money. In the end, twenty-four of the thirty-seven pictures used came from commercial image libraries. The British Library was the only publicly funded institution that proved competitive. 

I find this lack of competitveness alarming and disappointing - not so much as the writer of this particular book (because there are many alternative images available in galleries) but from the point of view of a supporter of the institutions in question. My book should have resulted in several thousand pounds going to help public bodies curate their collections, not to fatten shareholders’ wallets. But the point to which I especially want to draw members’ attention is the lack of regard to authors’ businesses implicit in this. Subsequent correspondence has revealed that the galleries assess their competitiveness by measuring their fees aginst those of similar institutions. I would contend that this is the wrong approach; instead they ought to consider their customers (especially authors) who ultimately decide whether or not to use their images. 

To prove my point, consider the National Portrait Gallery images (the most expensive in my sample). I originally intended to use five quarter-page images from the NPG, and to obtain world, all-language rights in case my agent found a foreign-language publisher. For each ¼-page image the NPG quoted £20 plus VAT for delivery of the digital file, plus £175.00 for the rights for up to 25,000 copies sold, plus 50% of that fee for simultaneous ebook publication. This totals £282.50 + VAT for each ¼-page image. 

If the NPG thinks this sum is reasonable then it follows that it considers a fee totalling £18,080 for a sixteen-plate non-fiction book exclusively using its images is reasonable. It is not. It equates to a charge of 72.3p per copy just for the images. Looking at my statements for my earlier Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, the first 25,000 paperback sales in 2009 realised a total royalty of £17,530.50 (average 70.1p per copy). Were I to use just ¼-page NPG images in my forthcoming book, every sale would lose me money. And that is just home sales: each export copy realises a much lower royalty (26.3p per copy in the case of a TTGME paperback). If I used sixteen whole-page images from the NPG (total cost per image £400.62p plus VAT, a charge of 25.6p per copy) I would earn less than a penny on every export copy sold. Does the NPG really think that reasonable: 25.6p for the images, 0.7p for the author?

While there may be some limited benefit in pricing images at high levels – to extract the maximum revenue from specialist books, which have to include specific images – I cannot help but think the current pricing strategy of most institutions is shortsighted and in need of complete review. They should be undercutting commercial galleries if they want more UK non-fiction authors to use their images. And I applaud the British Library for leading the way and making its manuscript images available at reasonable prices in these austere times, which are difficult for all of us, not just the public sector.

I should perhaps add that here at Philip Mould & Co. we licence our archive of images (searchable here) to the Bridgeman Art Library, and get a regular, if small, income from it. We are of course a private operation, and I have no qualms charging, for example, Innocent Smoothies a handsome fee for reproducing one of our portraits of Henry VIII on the back of their cartons, as happened last year. We usually provide reproductions for academic books gratis, if authors ask nicely...

Ian Mortimer's new series, A Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England, starts on BBC2 tomorrow, at 9pm.

Update - a reader alerts me to an article in the New York Times on this very topic, in which Taco Dibbits, director of collections at the Rijksmuseum says:

 “We’re a public institution, and so the art and objects we have are, in a way, everyone’s property,” 


Update II - I should of course have mentioned the NPG's new policy of allowing free image use for qualifying academic books with a print run limited to under 3,000 copies, which I covered here on AHN last year. My apologies to the NPG for not remembering to mention it again on this occasion. 

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