Providing ‘Free’ Digital Images to Scholars: Met, ARTstor and Accessibility to Online Art Collections

Past March 12, 2007, The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced on its website, a “pioneering initiative to provide digital images to scholars at no charge.” This announcement has been immediately spread by the scholar blogosphere, as for example in the blog of The Chronicle of the Higher Education and The Attic.

This new service entitled “Images for Academic Publishing” (IAP) has been implemented in partnership with the nonprofit organization ARTstor. This service,

…will make images available via software on the ARTstor Web site. Initially, nearly 1,700 images representative of the broad range of the Metropolitan Museum‘s encyclopedic collection will be available through the more than 730 institutions that currently license ARTstor. Efforts to expand this accessibility are now underway and will be announced by ARTstor at a later date.

According to The Chronicle of the Higher Education scholars in the USA have to pay high permission rates to make use of museums’ images; a problem that, maybe, does not relate to researchers in some other countries. However, the questions here are numerous.

Although we consider this partnership among The Met and ARTstor a wonderful initiative and we really wish it would be imitated by other museums, we are especially concerned about the accessibility of this project.

This initiative is only applicable “for use in academic publications.” So, what would be considered an academic publication? Are publications outside universities and research centers -but signed by scholars- eligible? How is going to affect this to publishing companies? Are independent researchers considered scholars? About these issues you could read an interesting thread at Musematic.

Our second concern relates to the fact that, till the moment, only “the more than 730 institutions that currently license ARTstor” could have access to this service. In other words, this service is not for the overall academic community, it is just for certain institutions. Moreover, we could guess that although this service is strikingly announced as “no charge for scholars,” becoming an ARTstor member required paying a fee, as eventually it was. But even willing to pay, not anyone could belong to the community because only institutions from, United States, Canada, Australia | New Zealand, and United Kingdom are eligible.
About this, and as a disclaimer, ARTstor explains on its website,

ARTstor participation will be limited, at least initially, to interested institutions in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Intellectual property and copyright law differs from country to country; most of the content in the ARTstor Digital Library will be available to international participants, but some copyrighted materials will not be available due to copyright concerns. In time, we expect to expand the availability of the ARTstor Digital Library internationally.

Eventually, we wonder what the best formula to provide non charged uses to nonprofit organizations is in an online context for art collections. At the end, internet uses of online collections are being regulated by each country’s legal frame and within the strict boundaries of economical power. So, access to online art collections still remain restricted to certain people and areas of the world while the utopia of Web 2.0 as a universal plaza remains still as a dream. This is however, a difficult problem that requires the will of establishing international suitable laws and more partnerships like The Met has done.

However, some other improvements could be easily done for a more accurate policy on who are the potential professional users of online art collections. We wish The Met will extented the IAP service to Museum Professional Associations, from the listed and not listed countries. Do we need to be “scholars” to need access to online collections? We can guess that the members of AFRICOM, AAM, AAMC, COVICOM, ICOM, Museum-Ed, or SMA (just to provide some professional associations examples) would really appreciate and get good benefit of this gesture.


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