Get the Picture?

Peta Mayer, ‘Just how open is open source?’, ArtsHub, 24 August 2014


While art institutions across the globe provide access to high-res image collections, Australian galleries are slow on the uptake.

While the internet provides widespread accessibility to information, frustration can be exacerbated when obstacles occur. Such is often the case when you want to download a high-resolution image to use for creative or educational purposes. Despite the fact that many personal and professional projects are not for immediate commercial gain, a wealth of different restrictions have conspired to prohibit the use of many images in public collections or online.

In many international collections, however, barriers are now being removed to allow access to images that have previously been restricted.

In 2013, Los Angeles’s Getty Museum released approximately 10,000 high-resolution images for public use without fees or restrictions.

At the time, Getty CEO and President Getty President, James Cuno, commented: ‘The web is such that people will get the images and do with them what they wish, and it’s impractical to police the Internet. So we wanted to recognize that and be certain that we had the best quality images available and with the most accurate information attached to them.’

Cuno said that the revenue the museum previously raised from licensing and use of the images was not sufficiently large enough to discourage the institution from moving to an open-content policy.

More recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art released 400,000 high-resolution, digital images of its collection into the public domain. The Met’s new policy comes under their Open Access for Scholarly Content (OASC) program. According to The Met, the released images comprise those which the museum believes to be in the public domain and free of other known restrictions. On site, the released images are identified by an icon with the letters OASC. Images associated with these artworks can be downloaded for license- and cost-free scholarly and academic publication, according to the site’s terms and conditions.

Britain’s National Portrait Gallery is another collection that offers free downloads for academic and non-commercial uses, following approval being granted by the gallery for a free academic license. The gallery’s criteria covers private research & study; classroom use; reproduction in a thesis; and publication inside academic/non-commercial books with print runs of up to 3,000 copies.

To download from the National Portrait Gallery, choose the image you want here, click ‘use this image’, then select the Academic Licence. Users are required to register their details, and once approved, the image can be downloaded. The gallery can only offer the Academic Licence for portraits they hold the copyright to, so it will not be available for images where there are  third-party rights.

In Australia, the State Library of Victoria (SLV), the Melbourne Museum and the Powerhouse museum are among those with strong digitization and access policies.

The SLV’s digital preservation policy states: ‘The Library has an active digitisation program resulting in an expanding digital collection and adheres to legal requirements specified in the Commonwealth Copyright Act 1968 (as amended) with specific reference to sections 51A, 51B, 110A, 110B, 112, 112AA and 200AB.’  In this case, as with overseas institutions, copyright is the issue rather than any reluctance towards access and digitization.

Similarly, the Melbourne Museum walks the fine line between providing access and protecting artists. In their policy on rights, they state ‘Museum Victoria aims to make its material accessible to the public. Museum Victoria also intends to protect its intellectual property and the intellectual property of others.’ The Melbourne Museum does not make access to images completely freely available however, users are required to send in an image request form.

Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum is a pioneer of the flickr commons project in which they provide access to images from their three main historic collections where there is no known copyright on the images in question. They also encourage users to engage and interact with the collections by contributing knowledge and adding their own tags to the images.

Therefore, while open source is bound by copyright laws (which, according to the US Copyright Office does not extend to ‘works produced by nature, animals, or plants,’ nor purportedly created by a divine or supernatural being’) it is also still hindered in some cases by institutional protocols and current policy. In particular, where key Australian institutions could expand their services to reach a global audience, galleries appear slow to get on board.

Currently the National Gallery of Australia’s digital services extends to offering users the capacity to order and pay for purchasing digital prints.

And when asked about their plans to provide digital access to the collection, a spokesperson from the National Gallery of Victoria said ‘We don’t have an existing policy but will consider it should the need arise in future.’

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