Much of the work in the V&A is in the public domain but many museums practice a weird perversion of copyright: they make you agree not to take (or sometimes publish) photos you take while in their halls as a condition of entry. Then they assert the bizarre claim that photos of their public domain collections are themselves new copyrighted works (even though the purpose of such a photo is to apply as little interpretation, art and creativity to the shot as possible) and charge the public a monopoly rent to reproduce the photos they've produced.
It's basically a giant racket to sell penny postcards and license fees for books. But this undermines the museum's core mission: to preserve and promote access to our shared cultural heritage. It's a form of curatorial treason -- betraying the museum's purpose to enrich its coffers.
The V&A has been a very progressive institution on this subject, generally speaking. The last time I visited, I was able to take photos with impunity -- except, bizarrely, in the gift shop (though I was allowed to stand outside of the gift shop, taking pictures of the interior).
In a move which could transform art publishing, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (V&A) is to drop charges for the reproduction of images in scholarly books and magazines. Reproduction costs now often make it difficult to publish specialist art historical material. The new scheme will come into effect early next year.Link (Thanks, Matt!)
The V&A is believed to be the first museum anywhere in the world which is to offer images free of copyright and administrative charges. It also intends to take a “liberal” view on what should be deemed scholarly or educational. The new arrangements will normally apply to all books published by university presses. Free images will also be available for exhibition catalogues and journals such as Apollo and The Burlington.