The British Museum has placed 1.9 million high-rez images of objects in its holdings online under a Creative Commons license, which is excellent news!
What’s more, they’ve got an advanced suite of tools for searching and downloading these images. It’s a really impressive technical and cultural achievement.
But there’s a fly in the ointment (more than one).
First, the museum takes the position that these public domain works acquire a new copyright once someone makes a high-quality photo of them. They have chosen a very restrictive CC license (CC BY-NC-SA).
This is wrong as a matter of UK law, as the UK Intellectual Property Office has stated:
“Copyright can only subsist in subject matter that is original in the sense that it is the author’s own ‘intellectual creation’. Given this criterion, it seems unlikely that what is merely a retouched, digitised image of an older work can be considered as ‘original’.”
Beyond that, the museum’s claim to be the sole commercial exploiter of these works is a bad look, given how much of its collection was stolen - looted - from colonized lands.
“When we stole these artifacts, it was culture. When you sell our pictures, that’s theft.”
I’m very sympathetic to the museum’s imperatives. They are struggling through both a decade of Tory austerity and a once-in-a-century economic apocalypse, so obviously they want to hold onto any revenue-generating possibilities they can find.
But the museum’s long-term survival can’t depend on philanthropists - plutes are dilettantes and most of the time they’re not actually “giving,” they’re just laundering their reputations.
Nor can it rely on monopolizing the sale of t-shirts and postcards with photos of looted artifacts on them. That’ll bring in pennies, while they need millions.
The future of museums - of the public sector overall - is public support. It’s only through broad public recognition of the social value of museums and other cultural institutions that they can once again attain stable, long-term financing.
And one way to do that is to make the museum a daily part of Britons’ lives - say, by allowing crafters and artists to make and sell works derived from the collection, by not placing restrictions on the high-quality reproductions the museum commissions.
“Friends will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no friends” goes double for museums and other cultural institutions.
Without the political will that comes from being treasured by the public, the trajectory of these institutions is to eventually become entirely dependent on rich donors, who have no reason to fund or maintain them as public bodies.
Not when those treasures will look ever so much nicer in their summer homes.