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British Art Historians Call for the Elimination of Reproduction Fees

LONDON, ENGLAND—A group of twenty-eight prominent British art historians have signed an open letter calling on national museums in the United Kingdom to eliminate reproduction fees for artworks in their collections. Such institutions include the British Museum, Tate, the National Gallery, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The letter contends that “such fees inhibit the dissemination of knowledge that is the very purpose of public museums and galleries. Fees charged for academic use pose a serious threat to art history: a single lecture can cost hundreds of pounds; a book, thousands.”

The letter was published November 6 in The Times newspaper and bore signatures from professors of art history at some of the UK’s highest-profile universities including Martin Kemp and Janina Ramirez, of the University of Oxford, Katherine Scholfield, of King’s College London, and Alexander Marr, of the University of Cambridge. Museum directors James Holloway, Malcom Rogers, and Duncan Thompson also signed the petition, along with editors Rhoda Eitel-Porter, Michael Hall, and Thomas Marks, among others.

Reproduction fees for individual artworks can be as low as £25, but costs vary widely depending the image’s size and the nature of the publication. In response to the letter, a spokeswoman for Tate said, “There are significant costs to Tate for creating authoritative images of works in the collection, both in the preparation of artwork to be photographed and in post-production of the photograph. We recover some of these costs through our licensing but not all.” A spokesman for the British Museum said, “Charges for any commercial publications are kept as fair as possible and vary according to circulation.”

The petition, hosted on change.org, states in full: “Fees are also charged despite the fact that the artworks in question are not publicly owned, but out of copyright (that is, made by artists who died more than 70 years ago). Museums claim they create a new copyright when making a faithful reproduction of a 2D artwork by photography or scanning, but it is doubtful that the law supports this. Museums’ rules for using images are confusing and inconsistent, and do not raise meaningful funds once costs are taken into account. We urge the UK’s public museums to follow the example of a growing number of international museums (such as Holland’s Rijksmuseum) and provide open access to images of publicly owned, out of copyright paintings, prints, and drawings so that they are free for the public to reproduce.”

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November 14, 2017