Museum image fees (ctd.)

September 12 2018


There was a debate in the House of Lords today about museum image fees. It's the first time the issue has been raised in Parliament. The debate was called by Lord Freyberg, a crossbench peer who is in favour of museums being more generous with their images, especially for educational purposes. His speech opens the debate, and can be seen in the video above, which is the full hour of the debate. The text will be made available in Hansard by tomorrow. 

Lord Freyberg set out a strong case for greater open access in the UK's national museums. I was very pleased to see that he was strongly supported by the Labour spokesman on Culture in the Lords, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port. UK politics is in a state of some disarray at the moment, but it's heartening to know that the Labour front bench are minded to support Open Access. You never know when another party might take power.

Opposing Lord Freyberg's points was the former army chief, Lord Dannatt, who is now chair of the Royal Armouries, a museum which says it needs the income from image fees. Lord Dannatt made much of the idea that museums should share in the commercial success of those who use museum images, but didn't really consider the educational or academic side of the equation. Of course, the Armouries is slightly outside of the image fee debate we've been having so far, since it has few paintings, and images of its other (3D) objects are subject to different copyright laws.

There was a curious speech from the Conservative Viscount Eccles, who wished those advocating Open Access ('a rather vague idea') would go away, saying that he "really hoped that not much more is heard of a small storm in an academic teacup". He is an adviser to the British Library. 

We were also lucky to have a contribution from the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Addington. He astutely came to the heart of the matter; the way in which museums arbitrarily and rather meanly determine what is and is not an 'academic' publication, and thus qualifies for a free image. In his speech, Lord Freyberg pointed to the way in which the British Museum defines 'anything which is itself charged for' as a 'commercial' publication, even if it is an obviously academic publication with a print run of just 100 copies. Lord Addington suggested that the museums need to come together and agree a common position on what constitutes an 'academic' publication. And of course he is right.

Viscount Younger of Leckie responded to the debate on behalf of the government. His main point was that the charging of image fees was not a matter on which government could interfere. National museums got their funding from government on the basis that they made their collections available to the public in person, and so everything else was effectively a matter for them. On one level he is right; national museums are so-called 'arms length' bodies, and act free of government interference. But then the government-commissioned Mendoza Review made a great deal about collections being made available digitally, and 'not just physically'. Freeing up image restrictions is a key part of this, because in order to help sell high res images, museums generally only make lower resolution images available online for people to see (Tate being the worst offender). Lord Younger also stressed how expensive producing photographs was, although of course museums photograph objects as part of their core mission, not just to provide images for scholars. In many cases these costs have been borne by museums long ago, often funded by charities and the National Lottery. 

Nonetheless, the really crucial thing from our (that is, advocates of open access, which I'm sure all you AHNers are) point of view is that the government did not come out against Open Access, and said that it would encourage museums to convene a 'round table' meeting on this issue. This is an important development I think. Not least because Lord Younger seemed sympathetic to an intervention made by Lord Addington that it was high time museums were much clearer, and more generous, in how they define 'academic' publications. 

So I'm very pleased with the day's events. First, it was good to get the issues debated in Parliament, and to find other peers and parties supporting Open Access. Second, I think the points made by speakers opposed to Open Access were fairly easily rebutted. Third, we have a potential route towards securing something we've long been aiming for; a common and much more generous allowance of free images to academic and educational publications. If we can do that, we'll have won half the battle. Change is coming. No wonder the fellow from Bridgeman Images who attended the debate looked a bit worried. 

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