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
    Crosbie Fitch (profile), 20 Jul 2009 @ 4:28am

    Did the Public purse pay for Digitisation?

    The question is not how much it cost to make the images available online (they could have used Flickr, say), but how much it cost NPG to scan the paintings, and whether those funds were obtained in a bank loan, or by a grant from the public purse. If the latter, then the public owns those scans and shouldn't have to pay a second or third time for subsequent copies (given digital copies cost nothing to make).

    It is obscene that a member of the public should be sued by a public organisation whose remit is to provide that member of the public (as much as any other) with access to public property (including photographic images).

    Copyright, suspending the public's liberty to make copies in order to sell them, is an anachronistic and unethical privilege intended for mercenary publishers - certainly not public organisations tasked with delivering art and knowledge to the public.

    Should the public pay for the digitisation of its cultural heritage through the suspension of its liberty to share and build upon it? Or should the public pay with its money and keep its liberty intact? I suggest the latter is ethical, whereas the former isn't. The other question is whether the money is extracted from the public by force (taxation) or voluntarily. If the latter, then each image can be placed in a digital art auction, and those among the public who appreciate its value can participate in reimbursing the costs of its digitisation. After all, if 3,300 images cost around 33,000 to digitise then that puts the cost of each one to the public at 10. You'd only need a thousand art appreciators bidding a penny to cover its cost. What a bargain.

    Instead we have the parlous sight of a public body putting a fundamentally innocent man through an expensive and very stressful process of litigation.

    Given Jammie Thomas was recently given a $1,920,000 penalty for sharing 24 mp3 files on Kazaa ($80k per file), it seems that with Derrick Coetzee having shared at least 3,300 images the NPG could be looking at an award of $264,000,000.

    What hell have we descended into where such crimes by publishers against members of the public are regarded as unsurprising, if not just?

    Publishers are supposed to benefit the public, not persecute it.

    Stop this madness.

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