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Wikipedia and major UK art institution row over famous paintings

Public domain, cries Wikipedia. Give us money, pleads gallery!

     
5:35 pm on Jul 17, 2009 (gmt 0)

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The battle over Wikipedia's use of images from a British art gallery's website has intensified.

The National Portrait Gallery is threatening legal action after 3,300 images from its website were uploaded to Wikipedia... by a Wikipedia volunteer David Coetzee.

The gallery also explained how David Coetzee was able to obtain the high resolution files from its site. They were made available to visitors using a "Zoomify" feature, which works by allowing several high resolution files to be seen all together.
It claims Mr Coetzee used special software to "de-scramble" the high-resolution tiles, allowing the whole portrait to be seen in high resolution.

The British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies has backed the National Portrait Gallery's stance.

A right royal row developing it seems. Note that the BBC uses just such a photo of a painting to illustrate the story. As they don't credit the source, I wonder where they got it from ;-)

Full story from the BBC [news.bbc.co.uk]

Syzygy

1:54 pm on Jul 22, 2009 (gmt 0)

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I usually take side with the people that are accused of infringing copyrights, mostly because copyrights today stifle more creativity than they encourage it.

In this case, I must side with the National Portrait Gallery: technically, Wikipedia could have a legal right to upload these images, the problem is that the National Gallery is a (probably) a state body (aka owned by the people), whose mission is to preserve art and display it. Preserving art is very very expensive, and we all know galleries and museums don't roll in piles of money, they usually scrape by with whatever they can. I read that the National Gallery makes a hefty part of its budget from re-prints in books of the paintings it is storing. Free high-rez images, under the GPL license, completely destroy this business model. So basically, Wikipedia would cut the grass under an institution that has an the "noble" purpose of preserving art.

I believe that Wikipedia should reduce the resolution of the images, and that's it, why do they need high rez versions anyways? Wikipedia is not an art book, as far as I know.

7:20 pm on Jul 22, 2009 (gmt 0)

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JS_Harris, this is a museum, not an art gallery, in spite of the name. A large museum, which can prove both a) and b).

Seems to me that Wikipedia is in trouble under UK law, and arguably isn't in the clear under US law--the Corel precedent might not apply, since the NPG had added creative value to the photos they published by setting up the Zoomify feature....

7:30 pm on Jul 22, 2009 (gmt 0)

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Syzygy, no it's not. It is extremely difficult to defend a position when you don't own the paintings and you leave them in a publicly accessible place, not to mention the "pictures" in question are digital. Even if there are "cameras not allowed" signs in the gallery it's still likely legal to take photographs because some "rules" aren't legal to begin with.

Good luck with that is my opinion. I'd like to think the gallery has some say to protect the images but, we'll see.

edit: didn't realize it was a museum, I don't think that will matter though, it's still public (which makes protecting digital images harder).

5:08 am on Jul 23, 2009 (gmt 0)

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Actually, the National Portrait Gallery only makes about £10,000 a year from licensing. That is tiny compared to some of the donations they receive (look at how much Christopher Ondaatjee's gave them). Read some of the blogs linked to from the wikimedia commons user page of the user who did the uploads and you will find a link to a Freedom of Information Act disclosure.

Anyway, giving people extra copyrights because they need the money is a bad idea.

7:56 am on Jul 23, 2009 (gmt 0)

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The UK has a 40% inheritance tax over a certain threshold, families give art to galleries because otherwise the art would go to the taxman.
7:58 am on Jul 23, 2009 (gmt 0)

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Where is the creative step in photographing or scanning a painting?

You might well ask, where is the creative step in photographing anything?
9:43 am on Jul 23, 2009 (gmt 0)

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I'm with the NPG, but there does seem to be a huge difference between "photography" incorporating composition, perspective, exposure etc, and the technical digital reproduction of a 2D object.

Its like a fax or photocopy.

Who owns faxes and photocopies, BTW?

10:44 am on Jul 23, 2009 (gmt 0)

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It is extremely difficult to defend a position when you don't own the paintings and you leave them in a publicly accessible place, not to mention the "pictures" in question are digital. Even if there are "cameras not allowed" signs in the gallery it's still likely legal to take photographs because some "rules" aren't legal to begin with.

Ownership is not in question - and UK law explicitly provides copyright protection for these photographs. These are professionally taken, high resolution images, with hours of post-production work afforded to them, and are not comparable to the snaps taken by a visitor (presuming visitor photography was allowed).

To the best of my limited knowledge you cannot copyright a fax or photocopy unless it is or has been part of an artistic/creative process, ie, you've made a work of art involving photocopies or electronic facsimilies. The contents of the fax or photocopy may well be subject to copyright, of course. The defining point is in to what degree creative/skilled/artistic input goes into the making of the object. Enough to make it a creative work in its own right?

Relative to the point shaddows makes, one argument asks whether, if you were able to scan a painting and thus had a comparable quality to a photograph, this could still be protected under UK copyright law.

Likely the answer is no, which then begets the question - where is the dividing line between a technical process of reproduction (the scanner) and the creative process via technical means (the photographer and photograph)?

Here again we have the difference. The US does not see a photograph of a painting, even when professionally done, as being worthy of copyright protection. The UK does.

Syzygy

2:51 pm on Jul 23, 2009 (gmt 0)

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Taking it out of the legal context and putting it in a very simplistic moral one:
Do the images have value? - Yes
Did they cost the NPG anything? - Yes
Has wikipedia used these images which have value in their own right? Yes
Did wikipedia pay for or reimburse the NPG? - No
2:58 pm on Jul 23, 2009 (gmt 0)

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Since copyright is meant to be applied only to creative works, the central question is: can the digital photographs of the paintings be reasonably considered art?

I don't think so. Art begins with intent: if the creator makes something with the intent for it to be art, it becomes art. But if a creator makes something that is meant to be only an exact technical reproduction of somebody else's work, then there's no way it could be reasonably considered artistic.

Sure, some creativity may have gone into the choices the photographer made, but it's hard to say that this is really art or a creative work, and therefore worthy of copyright in and of itself.

3:08 pm on Jul 23, 2009 (gmt 0)

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Let me just add that apparently the NPG is funded by the British government, which should, in theory, mean that anything they create is in the public domain.

(Or at least it would be if it was in the US. That's the reason why any photos taken by US government officials as part of their job are devoid of copyright. Perhaps somebody in the UK can clarify what copyright laws say over there with regard to government-created works or sponsored works for hire.)

4:39 pm on Jul 23, 2009 (gmt 0)

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Crown copyright [opsi.gov.uk]? But funding by the government doesn't mean they are a branch of the government.

I like nickreynold's moral view. Too much today revolves around what one can get away with under the law.

[edited by: oddsod at 4:41 pm (utc) on July 23, 2009]

4:40 pm on Jul 23, 2009 (gmt 0)

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I think it may be part funded by the British Government but also by private individuals - I believe it is a trust with trustees. I don't think it's employees are government officials.

As I understand it the wikipedia guy deliberately hacked the system to use high res images, when low res images were more freely available. I also lose sympathy with him as he obviously took them without asking, when the NPG's website has a lot of clear info about copyright and licencing

2:31 am on Jul 24, 2009 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member vincevincevince is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member



We must ask who owns what and what right that ownership gives. If the NPG buys a painting which is already in the public domain due to age, it only buys the physical media (e.g. canvas) and the frame. It does not buy the creative work, because the creative work is already owned by the public.

In seeking to stop Wikipedia from reproducing these images, the NPG is only shedding light upon its own protectionist practices which are designed to deprive the public of its own property, the creative work. By stopping anyone getting sufficient access to the physical media, the NPG stops the public being able to exercise its legal rights as the holder of the copyright to freely reproduce, distribute and create derivative works. The NPG, in this action and other pre-existing policies related to access and photography, is subverting and attempting to bypass the entire principle of the public domain and expiry of copyright.

The big question therefore is whether it is acceptable that the NPG is allowed to usurp the legal rights and privileges accorded by law to the public through the establishment of the public domain?

7:59 am on Jul 24, 2009 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member piatkow is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 5+ Year Member




entire principle of the public domain

We are talking about English material not American.
6:54 pm on Jul 25, 2009 (gmt 0)

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The UK has a 40% inheritance tax over a certain threshold, families give art to galleries because otherwise the art would go to the taxman.

So you are saying they give away 100% to avoid giving 40%. Also the largest single donor in recent years to this particular institution was Christoper Ondatjee who gave them a huge amount of cash in return for having the new wing named after him.

vince, your first para is spot on: they simply do not want to accept that these works are in the public domain.

8:20 pm on Jul 25, 2009 (gmt 0)

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why can't wikipedia just smaller images of a lower quality. then everyone will be happy. the pictures on their pages are always pretty small anyway, even when you click through to their full size.
all they need is a representation of the painting.
5:47 am on Jul 26, 2009 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member vincevincevince is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member



why can't wikipedia just smaller images of a lower quality

Why should the wikipedia be limited in its use? People who study art require large images, and there is nothing improper about an encyclopedia providing information in sufficient detail for it to be useful!
6:48 pm on Jul 26, 2009 (gmt 0)

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Why should the wikipedia be limited in its use? People who study art require large images, and there is nothing improper about an encyclopedia providing information in sufficient detail for it to be useful!
People who study art are presumably free to go to the NPG website and view the high res images. The NPG has provided these images at considerable cost - why should it have to give them away to people who hack into their site?

Of course the actual works of art themselves belong to the gallery. The gallery presumably therefore has the choice (within the parameters of its trust deed ) how to display or even whether to display the originals.

I guess that this is a little different to some other copyright areas (films, music, books) in that the item in question is a tangible asset that has to be looked after and in a sense if never displayed would not be "in the public domain" .

7:03 pm on Jul 26, 2009 (gmt 0)

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Well said, nickreynolds! There have been a lot of blithe statements made based on the assumption that if paintings are old enough to be in the public domain then photographs of them SHOULD be too, or on the assumption that it would be easy to take a quick picture of them. The Wikipedia images are not low-res or even high-res versions of a photo on the NPG's website, but constructed images made from several other images created to be part of a special application on the NPG's web site.

Think too about the possible effects if this hack is allowed. The NPG invested a good amount of money in that Zoomify feature. If it's OK for Wikipedia or an individual to use that as the source for their own content, then wouldn't the NPG, or other museums, think twice before doing such work in the future?

7:28 pm on Jul 26, 2009 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Administrator buckworks is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member



Wikipedia is justified to use the photos since they have no merit on their own other than duplicating a previously-created work.

Wrong. The photographs have considerable merit of their own, and considerable effort and skill was involved in producing them.

In this case, Wikipedia are thieves, pure and simple. They have stolen someone else's work without permission and without compensation.

If the paintings in question are in the public domain, Wikipedia volunteers would have the right to make their own arrangements to take their own photographs for their own purposes.

They do NOT have the right to steal the work of other photographers and graphics artists simply because that's more convenient than taking their own photos.

1:00 am on Jul 27, 2009 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member



Excellent, more judgely declarations!
This 52 message thread spans 2 pages: 52
 

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