Editorial in The British Art Journal, XII, 1
Setting scholarship – and shower-curtain design – free
The Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, has placed digital images of its collections online. So far, so familiar. What is extraordinary is that all the images have been made available for reproduction free of charge, in superb high-resolution format, with no restrictions over use. Indeed, this applies to all the collections of Yale University. Other institutions in the USA are now considering whether to follow. The British Museum is the major institution that had already taken the same step in the UK. Otherwise the outlook in Britain is depressingly outdated, with museums and galleries, as this journal has frequently pointed out, obstructing not only scholarship but also wider familiarity with their collections through the imposition of restrictive conditions on use and punitive fees. What makes it worse, much worse, are the outrageous claims to ‘copyright’ that are attached to the use of images, preposterously applied to the mechanical reproduction of original works of art long out of copyright. This loathsome practice must stop.
The Yale Center found that the cost of collecting the fees was greater than the ‘pitiful’ sums it managed to accumulate under the old system, and that must be the case with the many museums and galleries in the UK that still adhere to the restrictive practices of the past. The Royal Collection, which has probably more objects of desire than almost anywhere else, certainly found that to be the case. Alas, having closed down its own fee collection ‘service’, the Royal Collection has taken the fateful step of placing its reproduction arrangements in the hands of none other than the Bridgeman Art Library, an agency much given to the issuing of the most restrictive and tendentious terms and conditions, and the charging of high fees. Now that digital image-making of the highest quality can be achieved by a toddler with the right equipment, any continuing attempts to create a pseudo-copyright in the UK by ‘licensing’ the use of images of out-of copyright works of art is outrageous, but it is also foolish.
Come on, Tate, National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum! Some of you (OK, not the Tate) have made a bit of an effort to make scholarly publication a little less expensive, although the whole process is still needlessly complicated, involving hordes of staff who could be better deployed on more frutiful exercises. But it is time to grow up, enter the twenty-first century, embrace the digital age, make it all free, and, like the Yale Center, discover the excitement of a host of new visitors across the globe poring over your collections. And by that we don’t mean attempting to decipher those mingy, mean, little, blurry, low-resolution, watermarked, restricted access, tantalising glimpses of great paintings you so reluctantly allow, and that merely drive people away. No. They must be like the Yale and BM images, available to be studied in the greatest detail on screen and – crucially – retained. So listen up, bring on the high-res download! Bring on the Leonardo shower-curtain and the Van Gogh bathmat! Free! That way people get to know the works of art you care for. After all, though it sometimes seems to be forgotten, that is your job.
So farewell then, Lucian Freud ((born 8 December 1922, died 21 July 2011). The Tate had a good oil (a little portrait of Francis Bacon) but it was stolen. Prejudices there against figurative painting being what they are, it bought very few of his oils, and then prices went through the roof. Not that you can see most of the Tate’s holdings on its website owing to ‘copyright restrictions’: genuine, but stupid, and not the Tate’s fault.
And no, we made no attempt to negotiate the ‘right’ to illustrate one of them on the cover.
Life, as Freud may now be lamenting in that great studio in the sky, is too short.