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
    David Richens, 29 Jul 2009 @ 8:22am

    Being right is not always the end of the story

    Is this a debate about legal and moral, right and wrong? From the comments so far, it seems to be just that. As usual, there are arguments and opinions on both sides and no definitive conclusions to be drawn. Sometimes thoughts of right and wrong can blind people to the consequences. Driving across an intersection when your light is green puts you in the right, but if you see a speeding truck about to run the red light across your path, do you really want to be looking up into the doctors eyes in the ER saying, “ I was in the right.�

    The Wikimedia Foundation could have taken the same line with the NPG as they have with other European institutions, accept their offer of reduced resolution images for free availabilty in Wikimedia and not pursue the high resolution images. Mr Coetzee outsmarted the NPG by finding a method of acquiring their high resolution images. Perhaps he could not resist the temptation of showing his peers and Wikimedia how clever he was. Perhaps Wikimedia could not resist the temptation to keep the high resolution images, they are obviously much better quality. But the consequence is that for some percentage of the public The Wikimedia Foundation has been diminished in their eyes, and some percentage of the commercial, scientific and artistic communities will be thinking twice about what level of co-operation to afford to Wikimedia. This non-profit organisation may rely heavily on their volunteer contributers, but in the long run they need co-operative ventures. Being smart and even being right is not enough to make it in the big time world of the internet.

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