The Associated Press has picked up on a story involving public access to images in the Smithsonian Institution. Public.Resource.Org has posted 6,288 images currently sold by the Smithsonian on Flickr (a book of the images can be downloaded for free from Lulu.com), arguing that the U.S. institution is overreaching by claiming copyright or control over images that are in the public domain.
The issue is an important one that should also resonate in Canada. Some readers may recall the battle between a small school division in Manitoba and the National Gallery of Canada over fees levied for a public domain Paul Kane painting. In the wake of that incident, I've been working with some students to identify how Canadian museums address access to public domain works in their collections. The research is not yet complete, however, the preliminary news is not good.
Museums are strapped for cash and therefore use their physical control over images to levy fees over public domain works. While a cost-recovery fee for digitization or administration is understandable, many institutions go much further charging "surrogate copyright fees" or "user's fees" for public domain works or deploy technology to limit the potential uses of digitized versions of those works.
For example, consider Emily Carr, whose work entered the public domain in 1996.