An Associated Press article has just announced that the Smithsonian Institute has entered a media deal with the Corbis Corporation for the licensing of the institute's images. Corbis will make the institute's image available in a "one-stop-shop" for advertisers and the commercial sector.
On top of the Corbis online image portal, the Smithsonian is also licensing access out in broadcast media as well. As the article points out:
"The [Corbis] deal follows the Smithsonian's semi-exclusive TV deal with Showtime Networks Inc. for use of museum resources for filming projects. The joint venture will launch a new TV unit called Smithsonian Networks this spring that will be available as an on-demand channel from cable and satellite television providers. "
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 - cutural capital in the service of private interests on proprietary platforms.