The article, linked below, laments that many famous works of art aren't available in high-res and so they can't be used in teaching. It sets forth the reason for this as being because museums are overreaching, using their legal rights of control over the environment where these works are stored, or the license terms of their own photos and the websites where they are displayed, as a way to stop otherwise-permitted reproductions of works that would be in the public domain. (I'm oversimplifying but I don't think I'm changing the thrust of the piece; read it and make your own decisions.)
Yes, if it wasn't for copyright and the control it gives over images and reproductions the museums wouldn't be able to stop this kind of thing. But that's putting the cart before the horse.
When reading this article I was reminded of a theme I often see in more traditional arts contexts: that pricing models have developed in response to the legal system, and that one underlying reason for the tension between technology and content creators is the way technology undermines those pricing models.
Here's an example of which I've spoken previously on Legal Minimum: text-to-speech for e-books. In the context of a book-scanning judgment, I've made the point that text-to-speech technology will allow e-books to effectively become audiobooks. Right now, publishers set their pricing based on the idea that it's prohibitively difficult to change the format of a work: you could make any book into an e-book by "just" retyping the entire thing into a word processor and loading the saved file into your reader. It's cheaper just to buy the e-book version so very few people do that. But if there was software to do all the work for you... Currently they will be poorly-narrated, but that won't last forever, and even if it does there will be plenty of people who will put up with the lower quality because of the lower price. Does this mean we need to consider every e-book as a potential audiobook as well?
I see the museums issue as another instance of this bigger problem. For many people, seeing a high-quality digital reproduction of a work of art may substitute for seeing the actual work. But they can't price these reproductions at a level that will compensate them for the lost visits. Combine that with a legislative/policy environment in many countries that encourages cultural activities to become self-sustaining, and many of these same challenges arise. For many museums, I'd bet that high image pricing is the way they compensate themselves for these lost visits.
The article compares today's world, where digital images of art exist but are covered by rights management, with the past, where professors could go take images from a physical slide bank. I see that as the same thing as the book example above: back in the day, the only way to get a set of slides was either to go to every museum yourself and take the pictures, get someone else's negatives and make your own slides, or buy them. But now, digital copies make it easier to share. So that source of revenue risks being gone for the museums. And they don't want to change ticket prices to match (in some cases they aren't allowed to by law or terms of their endowment).
So what does this mean?
The two themes I hinted at in the lede and to which I'll return in 2013 are:
- The legal system doesn't create this kind of thinking. Correlation is not causation. But the way the system is structured invites people in the content creation industry to do things like price their works in the ways I've described above.
- Technology is subverting the content creation industry. The industry has accepted the benefits of digital file formats. It hasn't accepted the burdens, and is trying to use the legal system to fight back. And if that doesn't work, you'll see the effect in pricing.
The consequence? There will be less content, mostly killing middle-of-the-road works without broad appeal. And it will cost more to get it.
Please feel free to use the comments to tell me why I'm wrong.
The article that prompted these thoughts:
The Digital Reader (read this blog if you care at all about devices)
Legal Minimum article on book scanning judgment: