Balancing access and profit in the cultural sector

Externaliew of the National Gallery, London
A one-day conference (Connecting Culture and Commerce: Getting the Balance Right) at the National Gallery in London on Friday examined the ways in which cultural institutions can exploit their collections for commercial gain, while making them as widely accessible as possible. Much of the emphasis was on the world of museums and galleries, but the issues discussed were very relevant to libraries and archives too.

The day began with a conversation between the BBC’s Creative Director, Alan Yentob, and the Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sandy Nairne. They discussed the impact of technology on the way that the BBC negotiates rights with programme-makers as well as the ways in which the BBC’s audience now expect to be able to view programmes on demand, often through mobile devices. The recent licence-fee discussions were also touched upon, in terms of the new willingness by the corporation to make the programmes in its archive available.

It was interesting to hear about the hierarchy of television programmes: some being extremely popular in the short term, but with little long-term value (e.g. Strictly Come Dancing), with others, particularly documentaries and programmes about the arts, seen as having more long-term ‘view again’ appeal. The negotiations on broadcasting rights for these different categories of programme will therefore be different. The ‘Long Tail’ effect was not mentioned in the discussion, but it seems likely that there will be a demand for niche programmes in the same way as there is a long-term demand for the obsure books and movies that can now be obtained through on-line stores.

In response to a question from the floor about what cultural institutions can do to make things easier for broadcasters, Yentob suggested that linking the stand-alone websites of all the museums and galleries would be a good move. He also felt that museums should make their hidden treasures more obvious, to increase people’s interest in them. Sandy Nairne added that having the materials properly indexed and with appropriate contextual information was vitally important, sentiments which are certainly held dear by the Archives Hub team.

Over the day the importance of a clear framework and agreed common vocabulary for the description of rights, licences and intended uses was articulated on several occasions. The impossibility of small institutions being able to cope with such complex issues on their own was also mentioned more than once.

Gretchen Wagner gave a presentation about the approach of ARTstor and suggested that neither litigation nor legislation were likely to help resolve conflicts around matters of copyright (legislation being much more likely to be influenced by the wealthy publishing lobby than by the impoverished cultural sector). Her solution was for community-derived solutions such as Creative Commons and ARTstor itself to be the way forward. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s recent decision to make some images available free for academic use was mentioned several times during the day, and not always with approval.

The results of a London School of Economics research project into the economic, social and creative impacts of museums and galleries were presented by Tony Travers. The report was very positive about the contribution made by the institutions covered, but Travers expressed concern about the level of current investment into the sector and predicted that this will eventually have an impact, drawing analogies with the lack of investment in UK railways over the last 40 years.

One point I found particularly interesting during the day was in relation to the ‘Open Access’ argument for journal articles. One speaker complained that the big publishers of journals insisted that authors of articles had to sign away their copyright before publication. Charles Oppenheim of Loughborough University pointed out that if an author refuses to assign their copyright (and threatens to publish elsewhere instead), the publisher will produce a licence form instead, allowing the author to retain their rights. As authors of articles are not originally offered a choice in the matter, I’m sure many are unaware of this option (I certainly was).

Update: you can now sign a petition in support of the European Commission’s proposed Open Access Self-Archiving Mandate, which supports the principle of providing free access to publicly-funded research.