One of the main problems that become apparent in the permissions world is the fact that many institutions require that anyone who wants to use their image in a book pay for both the image and the permission. But often the institution doesn’t actually have rights to the image if the object is already in the public domain according to the precedent set by the Bridgeman v. Corel case. (See my previous blog post on The Bridgeman Case)
The permissions business remains profitable for institutions because there is often no other way to obtain high quality images of the objects they own. Once an author asks for an image, they are often asked to pay a permissions fee that may not be legally due. Granted, this is a source of income for these institutions that many of us hold dear.
Of course, if an author refuses, they risk endangering their relationship with the institution that houses an object of interest to their research and scholarship. At worst, the institution could decide to take the matter to the courts, though the likelihood of their success according to current precedents would be dim.
At the heart of things, museums, libraries, archives, and any other collections serve history, as do scholars and scholarly presses. Negotiations about the nature of the image, public domain, and fair use could allow every party to benefit: institutions stand to see increased interest in the objects they hold, and authors can publish their findings, all to aid in the general discussion of what really matters: the objects and their stories.