National Portrait Gallery Threatens Wikimedia Developer For Downloading Public Domain Images

from the what-public-domain? dept

Derrick Coetzee, a software developer and an administrator of Wikimedia Commons, the media repository for Wikipedia is being threatened by the National Portrait Gallery in London. Coetzee admits that he downloaded about 3,000 high-resolution images from the site, but notes that they are all of paintings that are in the public domain (nearly all are over 100 years old). Coetzee is in the US, where he notes Bridgeman v. Corel suggests that photographs of public domain paintings do not carry any copyright, since the photograph does not add any new expression. However, such issues are not settled in the UK, and the National Portrait Gallery is insisting that the photos are covered by copyright.

On top of that, the Gallery is claiming a violation of its database right. Database rights are an unfortunate mistake in European law, that allows a copyright-like right to be held on a database, even if the entries in that database are uncopyrightable -- such as a collection of facts or a collection of public domain works. Finally, the Gallery is also claiming that Coetzee unlawfully circumvented protection methods designed to keep folks like himself from downloading the content -- and thanks to the UK's own anti-circumvention law, that too could make him guilty of infringement. Of course, that last one shouldn't apply if the content isn't actually covered by copyright, as Coetzee argues.

The whole thing, frankly, seems rather ridiculous, and a huge black mark on the National Portrait Gallery in the UK. Here was a chance to help educate the public and give people more reasons to go to the Gallery to see the actual photos, and they're trying to stomp out that kind of education through abuse of copyright law. The people who run the Gallery should be ashamed of themselves. They ought to go back and read their own mission statement:
Founded in 1856, the aim of the National Portrait Gallery, London is 'to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture, and ... to promote the appreciation and understanding of portraiture in all media'.
How, exactly, does suing someone for getting those portraits more attention achieve that goal?

Filed Under: derrick coetzee, public domain, uk national portrait gallery, wikimedia


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  1. identicon
    NPG former fan, 14 Jul 2009 @ 4:58am

    I emailed the NPR and this is their reply

    The National Portrait Gallery is very strongly committed to giving access to its Collection. In the past five years the Gallery has spent around £1 million digitising its Collection to make it widely available for study and enjoyment. We have so far made available on our website more than 60,000 digital images, which have attracted millions of users, and we believe this extensive programme is of great public benefit.

    The Gallery supports Wikipedia in its aim of making knowledge widely available and we would be happy for the site to use our low-resolution images, sufficient for most forms of public access, subject to safeguards.

    However, in March 2009 over 3000 high-resolution files were appropriated from the National Portrait Gallery website and published on Wikipedia without permission.

    The Gallery is very concerned that potential loss of licensing income from the high-resolution files threatens its ability to reinvest in its digitisation programme and so make further images available. It is one of the Gallery’s primary purposes to make as much of the Collection available as possible for the public to view.

    Digitisation involves huge costs including research, cataloguing, conservation and highly-skilled photography. Images then need to be made available on the Gallery website as part of a structured and authoritative database.

    To date, Wikipedia has not responded to our requests to discuss the issue and so the National Portrait Gallery has been obliged to issue a lawyer’s letter. The Gallery remains willing to enter into a dialogue with Wikipedia.

    This statement will be published on the National Portrait Gallery’s website in due course.

    Once again, thank you for your feedback.

    I do hope that you will be able to visit the National Portrait Gallery both online (www.npg.org.uk – where visitors can freely view more than 60,000 low resolution digital images of works in the Collection) and in person in the near future.

    Yours sincerely,

    Helen

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