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. icon
    jakerome (profile), 21 Jul 2009 @ 12:14pm

    The licensing money that NPG gets is the problem! That they receive hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to “license” public domain images is absurd. No doubt many of the works in the museum were donated so they could be enjoyed by the public. But by locking up the paintings, and by demanding exorbitant fees to republish the public domain images, they are depriving Britain’s citizens of some of the most important art work in her history.

    How many textbooks don’t include these images because of licensing costs and legal hassles? How many schoolchildren have been deprived of seeing this historical work because the gatekeepers want to create an unnatural monopoly on a public treasure? It’s a shame that these alleged guardians of Britain’s past culture are so blinded to the opportunities that exist in a world when each copy is free that they fail to realize that they could perform their mission much better by opening up, by embracing the digital world instead of fighting it as a buggy whip maker battled the automobile industry.

    The NPG was given a gift of these photos, the condition of that gift being a mandate to share these important images with Britain’s citizens. They have failed in that mission, and even as others work to remedy this, still the NPG fights the future and tries to claim as their own works that were created hundreds of years ago. They have no right to license these photos; they have a duty to protect them, and share them with the world. If they can’t meet those duties, then they should turn the paintings over to someone who can.

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