Digital images, copyright and the public domain – National Portrait Gallery sends lawyer’s letter to Wikipedia

The National Portrait Gallery, (a British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies, BAPLA member) has issued a lawyer’s letter to a Wikipedia administrator. BAPLA says that: “The individual admitted to appropriating three thousand high-resolution images from the NPG website and uploading them to Wikipedia. The Gallery has told us that the lawyer’s letter was issued after their attempts to discuss the issue with the organisation were ignored.

“The Digital revolution which has created many opportunities for us to exploit, also presents many more opportunities for us to be exploited by infringement. As we continue to fight for a fair deal across the online landscape, we would urge you to watch this case as it may prove pivotal.”

The NPG has issued the following statement:

“The National Portrait Gallery is very strongly committed to giving access to its Collection. In the past five years the Gallery has spent around £1 million digitising its Collection to make it widely available for study and enjoyment. We have so far made available on our website more than 60,000 digital images, which have attracted millions of users, and we believe this extensive programme is of great public benefit.

The Gallery supports Wikipedia in its aim of making knowledge widely available and we would be happy for the site to use our low-resolution images, sufficient for most forms of public access, subject to safeguards. However, in March 2009 over 3000 high-resolution files were appropriated from the National Portrait Gallery website and published on Wikipedia without permission.

The Gallery is very concerned that potential loss of licensing income from the high-resolution files threatens its ability to reinvest in its digitisation programme and so make further images available. It is one of the Gallery’s primary purposes to make as much of the Collection available as possible for the public to view.

Digitisation involves huge costs including research, cataloguing, conservation and highly-skilled photography. Images then need to be made available on the Gallery website as part of a structured and authoritative database.

To date, Wikipedia has not responded to our requests to discuss the issue and so the National Portrait Gallery has been obliged to issue a lawyer’s letter. The Gallery remains willing to enter into a dialogue with Wikipedia.”

This is especially important for BAPLA members working with cultural heritage or historical images.

BAPLA says: “We understand that other people who have had similar experiences with Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons have been told that they regard all images of out of copyright material as public domain, and dispute there is any copyright in a copy of an original work. This is contrary to UK law. The copying of original works for commercial use requires skill and expertise and has a financial cost to the producer. The 1988 CDPA recognises this.

“If owners of out of copyright material are not going to have the derivative works they have created protected, which will result in anyone being able to use them for free, they will cease to invest in the digitisation of works, and everyone will be the poorer. Protection of derivative works is not about restriction of access to those works, it is simply about protecting the works from commercial exploitation by those who have not invested in the creation of the new work. As we can see from the NPG case, they do not want to restrict access to the public, but to assert the protection the law provides for their commercial interests. In this way they can raise more funds to invest in making even more material available.”

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