Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Two reasons museums charge for reproductions (and one consequence)

By way of The Digital Reader, I've just read an interesting article that I think misses a very important point. That point leads to two of the bigger and related themes I'll be exploring here in 2013, as well as one of their consequences.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:


  1. > There will be less content, mostly killing
    > middle-of-the-road works without broad appeal.
    > And it will cost more to get it.

    Museums need to be supported by a social model that allows them to remain solvent. Fighting the digital revolution by legal means to keep people from taking and distributing pictures of their "content" will just make people go elsewhere for content and render the museum less relevant for those purposes. That kind of content might be harder to come by. But maybe people-in-the-street will cease to care about getting it.

    Middle-of-the-road work in all fields has been tied up in a basement for 500+ years because means of production and distribution have been prohibitively expensive. Even if some dud painting is in the bowels of a museum, they haven't been wasting film and print-runs on making pictures of it available. Publishing houses that want to make money aren't wasting it publishing stuff that doesn't sell. Etc.

    That may be overshadowed by the other side of the coin: all that middle-of-the-road work that's being churned out. There is more content than ever before, and in pretty much any medium you care to name, "anyone" can do it. What's going to be ultimately killed as this "low-cost distribution of DIY digital content" genie continues to spew out of its bottle is the content suppression industry. And people may just turn away from the expensive content and those who want to legally restrict it to death.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It gives me a lot to think about. I don't disagree with you and in fact it dovetails with something I talked about in my last class in 2012 and about which I'll be writing further: that "amateur" content is going to crush lots of middle-of-the-road "professional" productions. Example: I have no need for The Food Network. If I want to watch a cooking show for some reason, My Drunk Kitchen or Vegan Black Metal Chef on YouTube are much more interesting.

      But I also think that the high-end content that regular people can't afford to create will be able to tentpole even more than today. Movies like Avengers make all that money precisely because the financial barriers to entry are so high. So even though there might be a John Carter of Mars that flops, there'll never be a fan creation that can match those effects. And so those items will be created still.

    2. Thanks, I think you're right on both counts. It'll be interesting to see where amateur content goes in the coming years and how it affects things. And looking forward to reading your future columns.

    3. "So even though there might be a John Carter of Mars that flops, there'll never be a fan creation that can match those effects. And so those items will be created still."

      I don't know that I agree with that, Don. Take the original Walt Disney movie "Tron". Looking at it now, the technology is almost laughable, and could likely be reproduced easily by someone with a decent computer in their home. Who's to say that in 20 years someone couldn't produce an 'Avengers' with the tech that's available then? And at some point, movie technology will reach a critical mass, and home tech will eventually catch up to that.

      However, I don't think that negates your point, because there's more to "Avengers" than tech. There's quality writing, directing, editing and acting. That's what will eventually keep the high-end content viable - talent. Whether it's movies, music or literature, I think that the better quality of the creative side will win out - what should lose is the corporate dross that churns out crap like Michael Bay's "Transformers" series. Sadly, with all of our technical achievements, there's still no accounting for taste.

    4. I think you're hitting the nail on the head here, @BigBoss. I think the kinds of things that will attract attention and funding will also be the kinds of things that are well-written etc. But also unfortunately the things that will get attention will include things fans can't create themselves, and those things will be the dross that they often are even today.

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Thanks for commenting. Posts and comments aren't legal advice; requests for legal advice in the comment probably won't get answered. Sorry to have to do this but someone someday is going to make me glad I did...