Is The National Portrait Gallery Lying About The Cost Of Its Digital Archives In Fight With Wikimedia?

from the might-be... dept

Last week, we wrote about how the National Portrait Gallery in the UK was threatening a guy who uploaded a bunch of photos from the Gallery's site to Wikipedia and defended his upload by noting that the portraits in question were all in the public domain. The Gallery insists that the photos of the portraits are not in the public domain, and that's where the heart of the legal dispute lies -- though, there are some side issues. In the US, it's pretty clear that a photo of a public domain work remains in the public domain (assuming no additional creative expression is added). In the UK, it's unsettled law. However, as the situation gets more attention, some interesting facts are coming out.

The National Gallery is claiming that a big part of the reason for why it's doing this is that it has cost £1 million to digitize the photos, and removing the ability to license the images makes it less likely that others will digitize their own collections. That's not a bad argument (though, there isn't necessarily a legal basis that copyright should be based on how much it costs to create the work in question). However, someone decided to check on those numbers, and put in a Freedom of Information request, and discovered that the actual costs to digitize and put the collection online was significantly lower than what the Gallery is claiming:
The Gallery spent £18,000 to put its collections online in 1999. During a ten year period up to 2008 another £10,000 was spent on minor developments and adjustments and in 2008 and 2009 a further £11,000 was spent. This gives a total figure of £39,000.
Now, that's not nothing, but £39,000 is significantly lower than £1 million, yes?

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


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  1. identicon
    Andrew D. Todd, 20 Jul 2009 @ 2:49pm

    The Real Issue is Control

    The National Portrait Gallery, like every other museum (except possibly the notoriously secretive Barnes collection in Philadelphia) has been making and selling copies of its images for at least fifty years. They have been selling books, postcards, posters, prints, and extensive sets of 35mm Kodachrome slides costing thousands of dollars, aimed at large research libraries. This has been a profit-making business on an ongoing basis, and the production costs have long since been charged off. Incidental to this work, they have accumulated large collections of very large intermediate photographs, either negatives or Kodachrome transparencies. For this kind of photography, an 8X10 camera was traditionally considered minimal, and people preferred to use 16X20 cameras which can be built into the darkroom wall for greater ease of film loading. When the NPG wanted to digitize, it did not have to start from scratch-- it could simply feed the intermediate films through the camera. The introduction of digitization yielded immense savings in all the work necessary to produce printed pages. In short, the NPG is practicing "creative accounting." There is an interesting book, the International Paper Company's _Pocket Pal: A Graphics Arts Production Handbook_ (1st ed., 1934, 11th ed. 1974), describing what this kind of work was like before computers. Incidentally, it is worth reading Alvin Toffler's The Culture Consumers (1964) for a good analysis of the economics of art.

    Museums put out reproductions as a profit-making business, and use the proceeds to fund scholarships. You know those colleges whose tuition is about two or three times a young person's necessary living expenses, but which give out a lot of scholarships (Harvard, Yale, etc.)? Well, art museums run on much the same system. Their problem is that they want to pick favorites up front, to chose young people they like, and give them an all-expenses-paid package, much the same way that Microsoft does. Well, of course, the internet doesn't work that way, as Open Source Software has demonstrated. It's much harder to shunt people you don't like into dull jobs and keep them there. The National Portrait Gallery wants to be able to say to the world what English art means, and to do so by controlling the training of experts. People like that can be fairly controlling-- if you let them, they'll be telling you how to comb your hair, what to eat for lunch, etc., etc.

    One of my old History professors once told a story about doing research in the private archive (muniments room) of a certain British nobleman-- with the snarling nobleman more or less literally breathing down his neck to make sure the historian told the story the way he wanted it told. Under the circumstances, my old professor did not have full intellectual freedom. When documents were eventually moved to the Public Record Office-- the British equivalent of the National Archives-- they became available to people with a much wider range of views. The growth of the internet is simply a continuation of the same process.

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