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
    Ryan, 13 Jul 2009 @ 9:58am

    Re:

    The Mona Lisa is probably the most well-known painting in the world, and its a fairly bland portrait. You can see it pretty dang easily on the Internet. Odd that such huge crowds always come to see it in the Louvre, no?

    And either way, their actions are completely, 100% at odds with their mission statement.

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