Italian Masters go commercial: the Bridgeman deal is bad for art

The bad news last week for anyone interested in art history is the acquisition by Bridgeman Images of rights to images for all the 439 state-owned museums and galleries in Italy. Those include the Uffizi, most notably, and many of the major collections in Rome.

This doesn’t mean that every existing image of a work of art in one of those museums and galleries is suddenly going to require licensing from Bridgeman. But it does make it likely that anyone wanting an image of a particular painting or sculpture in one of those collections will have to pay Bridgeman for the privilege.

This hits academics worst of all. Those reproducing images in specialist publications will increasingly find that they will have to pay to do so. It also hits non-commercial websites such as this blog: a typical article on paintings here might contain ten images; at Bridgeman’s current rates, if all ten images had to be licensed, that article would cost me £700 to publish. Not only that, but Bridgeman’s licensing terms include the following:
2.7. Licensee shall not make the Licensed Material available to be downloaded, extracted, redistributed or accessed as a standalone file by third-parties.

That would mean that my current article format would be unacceptable if it were to use any licensed image; instead, I would have to use a locked image browser which denied you direct access to the image files.

Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi), Primavera (Spring) (c 1482), tempera on panel, 202 x 314 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.
Sandro Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi), Primavera (Spring) (c 1482), tempera on panel, 202 x 314 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

It is a matter of dispute as to whether Bridgeman or any other organisation or individual can claim copyright over images of works of art which are themselves out of their period of copyright, such as Botticelli’s Primavera shown above. At the time that it was created, there was no copyright law. Under most current laws, Botticelli and his heirs would have been fully protected by copyright for a period including both the artist’s lifetime, and seventy years following his death (terms and periods vary according to jurisdiction).

Copyright, as an intellectual property right, exists to protect the rights of those who create paintings, sculpture, music, movies, and many other parts of our culture. It ensures that creators, the people who put their ideas, perceptions, and skills into producing works, are adequately rewarded for their contribution to culture.

There has been a long-running dispute over copyright and photographic reproductions of artistic originals. If I take a photo of Primavera, does copyright apply to my photographic image? Many claim that such a faithful reproduction is by definition not itself an original or artistic work, and has none of the properties required to be eligible for copyright.

Others – overwhelmingly those who make income from the sale of such spuriously ‘copyrighted’ reproductions – claim that making a good photograph is sufficiently demanding as to make it a creative act.

There is actually a very simple test which should be applied: if a photographer does have a legitimate claim to copyright, then those who photograph paintings and other works of art should receive royalty payments from the sale of rights for the use of their images. What the image agencies fail to mention is that those photographers don’t. If you pay a licence fee to use an image provided by an image agency, that fee is split between the agency, which has done nothing creative or original, and the current owner of the painting. Not a penny or cent makes its way to anyone related to the original artist, nor to the photographer who made the image.

Photographers are paid fixed fees for each image taken, at the time that they make the photographs. Irrespective of what the agencies and others might claim, they are not treated as creators or originators in any way, but are paid per reproduction.

The truth is that image agencies and owners of works of art are subverting copyright to generate income for themselves which has nothing to do with the intellectual property invested by the artist in creating a work of art, and everything to do with physical ownership and profit for those who have had nothing to do with the creative act.

Image agencies have shown themselves to ignore copyright law by charging licensing fees for the use of images which the creator has placed in the public domain. Far from helping preserve our cultural heritage, image agencies are parasites upon it.