By Matthew Bailey

Leaf, Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris), Ansel Oommen. Image credit: Wellcome Collection Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Why it is important that cultural heritage institutions don’t get fixated on an all-or-nothing approach to the re-use of digital content

In a previous blog published by Debbie McDonnell[1], she highlighted the increasing number of UK museums and galleries making digital images available under the terms of open content licences. Most of the organisations listed do so as part of a mixed offer with free content for specified non-commercial uses alongside paid-for content for commercial use. This is an eminently sensible approach, entirely in keeping with the need of such organisations to balance their public service remit with much needed income generation. Yet the last few years have seen a certain amount of pressure on the UK cultural sector to release all of their digital images, where they hold copyright, free of charge and dispense with the charging model altogether.

A great deal has already been written about this subject, with flag bearers for open access citing examples such as the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands[2] and Birmingham Museums Trust in the UK[3], and decrying the fees charged by other UK museums for re-use of their images[4].

Providing images for free with few restrictions might work well for some organisations, but it is certainly not a one-size fits all strategy. For example, whilst this might not be relevant at all for some organisations, there are also a range of Creative Commons licences, which enable free use but with different restrictions. Different Creative Commons licences will be more relevant to some arts and cultural heritage organisations than others depending upon varying governance, funding and operating models, third party rights issues, organisational appetite for risk, strategic objectives, resources etc.

Moreover, for any organisation considering  making their images available for free, it would be prudent to learn from the lessons of others who have previously taken this route, before making a decision because once images are released under open licences, this decision is forever, since it cannot be reversed. Issues might include:

Making images available for free, with proper metadata, rights information, permissions and signposting can be fantastic, but it is often overlooked that many of the free images found online have insufficient metadata, credit and caption info and no link back to the source. This means that the value of the use of these images under more permissive terms is often forgotten – or at least the value chain is broken. This may mean that their value, in income and/or reach, is not realised by the organisation making them available. This is especially important for publicly funded museums. Releasing images online without proper credit or metadata is no good for museums wanting to increase their reach, since images found online will not be linked back to them and will, to all intents and purposes, be orphaned. It is also no good for the end user wanting to know if they have the authoritative version of that image, with correct metadata, and assurance they have the necessary permissions to use it.

Cultural heritage institution websites in the UK provide fantastic access to their collections, free of charge, alongside authoritative caption information, rights information and metadata. Many, including the National Portrait Gallery, also provide free access to hi-res files, whilst still maintaining an image licensing service which contributes income and a healthy profit[5] alongside increased reach of collection images. Having licensed products in retail reaches people that may never think of visiting the physical collection, and in a vast array of books, journals, websites and TV programmes, where the inclusion of images adds huge value.

But the key is balance, as discussed in the 2015 report by the Collections Trust commissioned by the NMDC Striking the Balance. When heritage institutions have debates about open access and charging models, there is no need to become fixated on an all-or-nothing approach, and it is perfectly possible, and potentially preferable, to develop twin streams of free and paid-for content as well as strategically using an appropriate Creative Commons licence that fits the organisation’s specific needs.

UK cultural heritage institutions are forever working to balance their public task alongside commercial activities. In a Covid-19 climate, with mass staff redundancies looming, it is even more important to generate income, alongside making content widely available in a responsible and sustainable manner, and a mixed approach to image licensing can benefit everyone.


[1] 17th March: Wealth of Licensed Images Available from UK Museums and Cultural Organisations

[2] Democratising The Rijksmuseum, Europeana

[3] The Case for Open Access, Apollo Magazine

[4] Image Fees Are Killing Art History, The Times (subscription required)

[5] Image Sales, whatdotheyknow.com


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© Naomi Korn Associates, 2020. Some Rights Reserved. The text is licensed for use under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike Licence (CC BY SA)

Disclaimer: The material in this blog post is for general information only and is not legal advice. Always consult a qualified lawyer about a specific legal problem.