I’ve written before about the common practice, in my opinion a very questionable one, that academic library special collection departments have of charging usage fees for images from special collections that vary depending on intended use.
This is to my mind questionable because libraries generally don’t hold the copyright to these images, nor have they been authorized by the copyright holder to sell licenses to use these images. So while these fees appear like licensing fees, they aren’t. If someone paid a smaller ‘personal use’ copying fee for a copy of an image, but then used it in a dissertation, a book, or even a commercial — the library wouldn’t have any legal standing under copyright. They might under contract if the person had signed a contract promissing not to do that. And on the other side, you are not actually obtaining a license when you pay these fees — if the actual copyright holder showed up and said you had no legal authorization to use that image on your website, in your book, or in a commercial, they’d be absolutely right. (Some portion of a libraries special collections, the copyright holder may have assigned copyright to the library or given them a license to sub-license — I’m not sure how common that practice is, but it’s definitely not universal, I suspect the copyright holder is not even known by the library for many old images in libraries).
Anyway, I consider this practice rather contrary to the main mission of libraries to provide access. It also interferes with the new mission to educate users on their rights under copyright, as it serves instead to confuse users as to rights of holders and users under copyright.
Yale opens up images
Or, wait, does it?
However, it’s not entirely clear to me how real/complete this change is. Yale says in their own press release that:
The goal of the new policy is to make high quality digital images of Yale’s vast cultural heritage collections in the public domain openly and freely available…
…As works in these collections become digitized, the museums and libraries will make those images that are in the public domain freely accessible. In a departure from established convention, no license will be required for the transmission of the images and no limitations will be imposed on their use….
And the phrase “open access” is used several times. (Also again, note, “established convention” is to charge/provide a license for public domain works? I think you guys still doing this really don’t want to call that a “license”, I would suspect it is fraud to sell a “license” to something in the public domain).
Limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only? Is that “open access”? It’s definitely not the no limitations” the press release brags about.
But other than the press release itself, I can’t find anything on the website hosting these images telling us what rights and restrictions there are on them, except for those terms.
I am also only able to find fairly low resolution images from that ecatalogue site. If all they’re doing is applying (sort of) “open access” to very low-res images, but still charging high and determiend-by-nature-of-use ‘reproduction’ fees for images with enough resolution to do anything useful with…. well, that’s what a lot of libraries have been doing for a while, and isn’t the groundbreaking change the press release implies.
So what’s the real scoop? Has Yale actually “open access-ed” their digitized images from special collections in a meaningful way, or is this just new marketting for business as usual? Anyone know? I find it odd that the press release crowing about “the new policy” doesn’t actually link to it.
“With this pioneering open access policy, Yale reminds us that with any great academic collection comes a great responsibility: to share our cultural heritage openly in order to advance scholarship not only on campus but around the world. Yale has set a new standard by which we should measure our colleges’ and universities’ commitment to scholarship,” noted Max Marmor, president of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, which encourages teaching, learning and scholarship in the history of art.
From the press release. Well said, Max Marmor, that’s exactly right — public and academic libraries missions are to share their material openly. I hope Yale is actually doing this, and I hope it does indeed guide the way for other academic libraries to follow suit.