My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, Ottawa Citizen version, Vancouver Sun version, homepage version) explores the issue of museums and fees associated with public domain works. As museums experiment with the Internet – many are using online video, social networks, and interactive multimedia to create next-generation museums that pull content from diverse places to create "virtual museums" – the museum community has emerged as a leading voice for the development of legal frameworks that provide sufficient flexibility to facilitate digitization and avoid restrictions that could hamper cultural innovation.
Yet as museums embrace the Internet's potential, there is concern that their advocacy and actions are not always consistent. This is particularly true with respect to their policies on public domain works, for which the term of copyright has expired. The public domain issue has emerged as a contentious one within the museum community. Many museums receive regular requests for copies of works in their collection to be reproduced in school texts, magazines, or other publications. The costs associated with these requests vary widely. Some museums levy administrative fees (for the cost associated with handling the request), reproduction fees (for the cost of reproducing the image), and notwithstanding the expiry of copyright, permission fees.
In 2006, London's famed Victoria and Albert Museum became the first museum to completely drop charges for the reproduction of images in scholarly books and magazines. While that decision generated considerable acclaim, according to documents obtained under the Access to Information Act, the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) appears to be taking the opposite approach by treating public domain works as a profit centre.