by J J Cohen
By now you've heard the news that British Library manuscript images are open access. (And just after I paid them for use of an image for my next book. Can I get my £80 for worldwide rights back?). This announcement is tremendously cheering to those of us who have had to deal with the sometimes unhelpful BL permissions management staff -- and who have wondered why it should cost so much to share an image that really ought to be out in the world as much as possible.
The British Library is playing catch up with more visionary institutions, such as the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore under curator William Noel. Let's hope other institutions quickly follow. For now, though, check out this great interview with Noel at the TED Blog, where he makes an eloquent plea for Creative Commons licensing of all medieval manuscript digital images. My favorite portion of the interview:
"Libraries containing special collections of medieval materials are normally very careful to write restrictive copyright on their materials. Part of this is historical; that is to say, when images of these manuscripts were published in books, it didn’t have to behave like digital data, and it didn’t have to be free for people to use in all sorts of ways and in different contexts. The images were just reproduced in other books. But those days are fast running out, and digital images need to be free, so that people can do what they need to do with them and what they want to do with them. That’s the great thing about digital data!Read the whole thing.
So part of that is historical: You used to restrict the use of your books to try and make money off reproductions in other books. It was expensive, but it wasn’t crippling. Today these copyright restrictions are now crippling scholarship and access by the general public. The other thing is that a lot of these collections are in national institutions, university libraries, and they are the prized cultural heritage of these institutions. The policymakers in those institutions don’t like the idea that reproductions of these images can be available for free. It feels to them like you are denigrating your greatest asset. That’s a state of mind that belongs to my grandfather — for whom I have great affection, but to whom I don’t listen much anymore."