Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hoping for Open

The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science has issued new Recommendations Concerning the Free Use of Visual Media for Scholarly Purposes that argue that academics should be pushing back against the extension of intellectual property claims over images of physical objects being made by for-profit image consortiums that license reproductions and control representations of material culture both high and low. Christine von Oertzen, whose research examines histories both of gender and of science, authored the statement explaining the plight of academics asked to pay exorbitant sums for academic

The “visual turn” in the humanities has encouraged researchers to make increased use of paintings, photographs, and digital media. In the history of science, these sources have moved to the center of scholarly practice. Compelling examples of the integral role assumed by visual sources in ongoing projects at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science include the history of scientific observation, the study of drawing and recording as scientific techniques, as well as the epistemic history of architecture.

Among scholars in the humanities, interest in visual sources will continue to grow. For this reason, we must ensure that researchers and curators work together to secure scholarly access well into the future. At museums, libraries, and other image repositories, financial considerations limit scholars’ access to digital media. Budget pressures have led many libraries, museums, and archives to charge substantial fees for the right to use digitized media – and this despite the fact that the original objects in question are often no longer covered by copyright. Other institutions have ceded the processes of digitization and marketing to commercial image providers. This for-profit approach to digital cultural heritage circumscribes scholars’ use of historical image collections. Precisely at the moment that new e-publishing practices are beginning to change the nature of scholarship itself, researchers face soaring costs for the rights to use digital cultural resources.

In considering what this means at the theoretical level for those who think about Walter Benjamin's claims in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" that the original "aura" of the work of art can be diluted by infinite copying, it raises the issue of how cultural resources can also be infinitely monetized when a single commercial vendor controls the rights to the replication process.

At the practical level, scholars can take heart as the Images for Academic Publishing project develops, in which high quality images can be reproduced in academic publications free of charge through the image database ARTstor, a program that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has already signed on to.

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