Saturday, August 6, 2011

Our new website

All my working life authors wishing to publish photographic reproductions of works of art that are (a) owned by public institutions, and (b) out of copyright, have labored under a punishing regime of fees for permission, fees for reproduction, fees, fees, fees. It is a burden that has cost many of us more than our published work will ever earn back in royalties, and has therefore put an almighty brake on scholarship in every branch of the history of art, and much else besides. For many impecunious art museums, the system has been regarded as a valuable income stream, and as a way of controlling the quality of such reproductions of the works in their care as find their way into print. However, the cost of gathering those fees is often greater than the annual income so generated, and in the era of the internet no museum, however great, can ever possibly hope to maintain that control. People will simply go ahead and scan a magazine illustration then manufacture Mona Lisa bathmats any way they can, usually in Guangzhou.

So we are leading by example. Henceforth we at the Yale Center for British Art will gladly make available through our website easily downloadable high-resolution print-quality photographic reproductions of anything in our collection that is out of copyright—free, gratis, and for nothing. Nor does it concern us in any way whatsoever how you wish to use these reproductions, in print or online. We are sufficiently confident that people everywhere will grasp the difference between a photo and the real thing, and if the dissemination of accurate reproductions of our works of art achieve wide distribution, so much the better. We do not and will not make judgments of taste in respect of the suitability or otherwise of George Stubbs’s Zebra, say, wandering onto a muu-muu or shower curtain any more than we interfere with law-abiding visitors to our galleries during normal opening hours. And we are certainly not so paranoid that we regard such unconventional forms of reproduction as an affront to the artist, or so pompous as to see ourselves as the sole custodian of his posthumous reputation—indeed we are confident that Stubbs will be taken no less seriously should his zebra ever put in an appearance on a G-string at the carnival in Rio. Ideally we would prefer non-commercial use, but these days what is non-commercial? You will see that we have put in place a simple mechanism that ought to prevent a robot from vacuuming up everything. All that we are asking our users is that in due course they let us know where they elect to publish reproductions of works in this collection so that our records can be kept as up-to-date as possible.

It’s about time, isn’t it? And the cultural and philosophical bases are entirely logical. We are a public institution, and thanks to the munificence of our founder the late Paul Mellon access to the objects entrusted to our care is free, clear, unrestricted, and open to any and everyone in perpetuity, subject of course to the law of copyright, and to routine logistical or conservation constraints. But even there we do our best to show people whatever they want to see that may happen to be in storage just now. So the new website and our new policy about reproductions are merely an extension of that.

So, authors, come ye, shout it from the rooftops, tell your colleagues and friends, alert your publishers to this valuable new resource, and feel free to rake through our website, search high and low, right across the collections, and download to your heart’s content. Be fruitful, and multiply!

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