German Museum Sues Wikimedia Foundation Over Photos Of Public Domain Works Of Art

from the once-public-domain,-always-public-domain dept

The mission of museums and art galleries is generally to spread knowledge and appreciation of beautiful and interesting objects. So it's rather sad when they start taking legal action against others that want to help them by disseminating images of public domain works of art to a wider audience. This obsession with claiming "ownership" of something as immaterial as the copyright in a photograph of a work of art made centuries ago led the UK National Portrait Gallery (NPG) to threaten Derrick Coetzee, a software developer, when he downloaded images from the NPG and added them to Wikimedia Commons, the media repository for Wikipedia, of which he was an administrator. That was back in 2009, and yet incredibly the same thing is still happening today, as this Wikimedia blog post explains:

On October 28, the Reiss Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim, Germany, served a lawsuit against the Wikimedia Foundation and later against Wikimedia Deutschland, the local German chapter of the global Wikimedia movement. The suit concerns copyright claims related to 17 images of the museum's public domain works of art, which have been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons. The Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia Deutschland are reviewing the suit, and will coordinate a reply by the current deadline in December.
The problem, as usual, is that the museum is claiming that the photographs are new creations, and therefore covered by copyright:
The Reiss Engelhorn Museum asserts that copyright applies to these particular images because the museum hired the photographer who took some of them and it took him time, skill, and effort to take the photos. The Reiss Engelhorn Museum further asserts that because of their copyrights, the images of the artwork cannot be shared with the world through Wikimedia Commons.
As Wikimedia points out:
Even if German copyright law is found to provide some rights over these images, we believe that using those rights to prevent sharing of public domain works runs counter to the mission of the Reiss Engelhorn Museum and the City of Mannheim and impoverishes the cultural heritage of people worldwide.
The disagreement over the use of the NPG's images back in 2009 gradually fizzled out. The Museums Journal reported in 2012 that:
The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) has made changes to its image licensing to allow free downloads for non-commercial and academic uses.

The change means that more than 53,000 low-resolution images are now available free of charge to non-commercial users through a standard Creative Commons licence.

And more than 87,000 high-resolution images are available for free for academic use through the gallery’s own licence. Users will be invited to give a donation in return for the service.
Meanwhile, high-resolution NPG images are still available on Wikimedia Commons, although Wikipedia notes that these are prudently hosted in the US, where their legal position as works in the public domain seems clearer. It's really time for other countries to catch up with the US and recognize that photos of public domain works of art are still in the public domain, and that sharing them with the world is something to be praised as helpful, not pursued as harmful.

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Filed Under: copyright, germany, images, museum, public domain, scans, wikipedia
Companies: reiss engelhorn museum, wikimedia


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Dec 2015 @ 2:42pm

    Re:

    and more importantly, there is absolutely nothing copyright-able about that. it's a faithful representation of the original nothing more.

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