Museums Exploiting Public-Domain Artworks

The world’s museums are stewards of millions of images that constitute our cultural patrimony. But are museums willing to share the images that are legally in the public domain? Canadian legal scholar Michael Geist, writing in the Ottawa Citizen, notes that many museums are exploiting their control over public-domain images to limit public access to them and make money. The National Gallery of Canada, for example, charges a “permission fee,” over and above any administrative or reproduction fees, to requesters of copies of public-domain artworks. Geist argues that these fees undercut museums’ arguments for greater taxpayer support.

Permission fees often run into the hundreds of dollars, and include restrictions on how the image may be used. But not all museums are going this route. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has dropped charges for the reproduction of images in scholarly books and magazines. Now that the Internet is making widespread public use of “scarce” images more valuable than their private market sale, it’s time for museums to reconsider how they best serve the public interest.