Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Monday, January 29, 2007

More toll access to public resources

Brett Zongker, Smithsonian and Corbis Enter Media Deal, The San Francisco Chronicle, January 28, 2007.  Excerpt:

The Smithsonian Institution and Corbis Corp. announced a deal Wednesday to begin selling images from the Smithsonian's collections for editorial and commercial use through the digital media company.

Under the licensing agreement, Corbis will provide hundreds of images from the Smithsonian museums, including archival photos and images of cultural objects, paintings, sculptures, aircraft and space vehicles....

Smithsonian officials said they hope the agreement with Corbis will make museum resources more easily accessible and offer some images in a digital format for the first time....

There is no guaranteed annual revenue under the deal, and Corbis did not provide any money up front, said Smithsonian spokeswoman Samia Elia. Licensing fees charged for each image would go back into the museum's educational programs. The royalties from image sales vary each year, she said. No other financial terms were disclosed....

Corbis has similar arrangements with the National Gallery in London, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, said Corbis spokesman Dan Perlet....

The deal follows the Smithsonian's semi-exclusive TV deal with Showtime Networks Inc. for use of museum resources for filming projects....Under the deal, the Smithsonian reviews proposals for commercial documentaries from other filmmakers before granting access to its archives. Of the 117 applications received during the first nine months of the contract, two proposals were denied due to the Showtime deal, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.  The Showtime deal guarantees the Smithsonian $500,000 a year for 30 years and possibly more, depending on the popularity of the Smithsonian channel, Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small has said.

Thanks to New Museums for the alert and for these comments:

There has been some backlash surrounding the Showtime decision - yet, the Corbis deal is proceeding without review or challenge by the public. Perhaps this reflects that private image wholesaling is not an entirely new trend; similar agreements have been reached with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Still, the incorporation of the Smithsonian raises the profile and stakes within the cultural sector. Amongst the pertinent issues for public (if not Congressional) review:

  • How does the concept of cultural patrimony seem relevant to the "public good" if that patrimony is leveraged in the service of private interests?
  • Is the Smithsonian also granting free/open access for researchers, developers and the creative commons to leverage those very same images and resources?
  • Will the institute leverage the revenue from this deal to fund greater open access and innovation initiatives or just fill budget gaps?
In my opinion, the primary issue in this case is not the institute searching for new revenue streams or receiving licensing fees for its property, but rather the choice to explore closed, revenue-driven platforms for dispersing the content of the nonprofit sector. The most contentious quote from the article is the statement "Smithsonian officials said they hope the agreement with Corbis will make museum resources more easily accessible and offer some images in a digital format for the first time." Accessible to whom? This type of deal sets a dangerous trend of narrow-casting Museum services in all the worst ways - cultural capital in the service of private interests on proprietary platforms.