Limited Editions are a creature of the art marketplace. Once the ability to reproduce an artist's image evolved (through printmaking), it became desirable to present the images as limited editions - ensuring some exclusivity. Of course, the lower the edition number, the scarcer the image, thereby making it more desirable to collectors.
There have always been questions about editions, but this has arisen now more than ever. Now that we are in a digital age, reproductions can be done over and over - the copper plate of an etching wears out - the digital image does not.
In photography a collector named Sobel brought a suit against photographer William Eggleston. Sobel had collected 190 Eggleston photographs and supported a major exhibit of his photography that travelled the world. Suddenly, in 2012, Christie's was auctioning off large scale digital prints (scanned from the original negatives) of some of the images that Sobel had in his collection. The lot of 36 new prints sold for $5.9 million. Sobel brought suit arguing that the fact that the original vintage prints were sold as limited editions precluded new artworks based on the same negative.
This was an interesting challenge. It has long been known that photographers take popular limited editions - i.e., their great images, resize and re-editon them to sell more and more of them. Sobel, however, argued that the value of his work was devalued b/c their was an implied promise that the edition was limited.
The District Court of NY did not need a trial and determined the case in Summary Judgment. The placing of an edition on a print is meaningless unless the ARTIST explicitly promises that the "underlying" image will be used for "only" this edition.
IRONY: Christie's argued against the collector, i.e., for expansive rights for the photographer. Yet, their Spring Photography Catalogue proudly states that images are numbered X of an edition of Y. They feign exclusivity while knowing (and having argued) that there is no such thing as an edition. Bottom-line - its all about selling.
Conclusion: I have always tried to stress that editions are relatively meaningless. Jeff Koons has made fun of editions by issuing an edition of 3,000 Puppy vases - why edition? - He mocks the concept. Yes, I sell editions but I often try to discuss what this really means. Virtually nothing in photography.