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), 22 Jul 2009 @ 7:10am

    Re: Re: UK Copyright Law

    You can steal the fruits of someone's labours, i.e. IP theft.

    If I spend a couple of hours taking a photo of a 200 year old oil painting with my digital camera, and you come along, and whilst I'm not looking whip out my camera's memory stick, make a copy, and then re-insert it, then you have stolen the fruits of my labour. It matters not whether my labour involved any creativity, nor whether my photo or the painting is subject to copyright.

    Copyright infringement is nothing to do with IP theft, though sometimes copyright is the only law providing any disincentive or remedy. Copyright is an unethical and anachronistic monopoly granted to originators of IP and should be abolished.

    However, that doesn't make it open season for IP thieves.

    In the case of the NPG, Derrick Coetzee had only re-assembled images from smaller portions voluntarily supplied to him by the NPG. There was no theft involved, only Derrick's labour and selfless donation of it to Wikipedia for the public's benefit.

    Moreover, these are published images (delivered to the public - public domain - public property) of publicly owned material and intellectual works held in a publicly owned building entrusted to the care of a publicly funded organisation. How much more public can you get?

    Frankly, if Derrick had hidden in the gallery, waited until it closed and then whizzed round with his digital camera (safe light source as opposed to flash) and had then uploaded his images to Wikipedia, it would have still been the mildest of infractions (akin to remaining in a park after nightfall to photograph badgers) to do this as a member of the public, and a philanthropic gesture to selflessly facilitate greater public access to these works.

    But, that's only because these are public works. If Derrick had burgled an oil painter's private studio and collection to make copies of his paintings (whether still wet or old masters) then that would be IP theft.

    It should be straightforward to recognise the clear ethical difference between an IP thief's violation of an individual's privacy and a corporation's violation of Derrick's cultural liberty (not forgetting illegitimate enclosure of public property).

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