Last week, the National Portrait Gallery in London, UK sent a threatening letter to a Wikimedia volunteer regarding the upload of public domain paintings to Wikimedia’s media repository, Wikimedia Commons.

The fact that a publicly funded institution sent a threatening letter to a volunteer working to improve a non-profit encyclopedia may strike you as odd. After all, the National Portrait Gallery was founded in 1856, with the stated aim of using portraits “to promote appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture.” [source] It seems obvious that a public benefit organization and a volunteer community promoting free access to education and culture should be allies rather than adversaries.

It seems especially odd if seen in the context of the many successful partnerships between the Wikimedia community and other galleries, libraries, archives and museums. For example, two German photographic archives, the Bundesarchiv and the Deutsche Fotothek, together donated 350,000 copyrighted images under a free content license to Wikimedia Commons, the Wikimedia Foundation’s multimedia repository. These photographic donations were the successful outcome of thoughtful negotiations between Mathias Schindler, a Wikimedia volunteer, and representatives of the archives. (Information about the Bundesarchiv donation ; Information about the Fotothek donation)

Everybody ended up winning. Wikimedia helped the archives by working to identify errors in the descriptions of the donated images, and by linking the subjects of the photographs to accepted metadata standards. Wikipedia has driven new traffic to the archives. And the more than 300 million monthly visitors to Wikipedia have been given free access to amazing photographs of historic value they would otherwise never have seen.

More examples:

  • During the past few months, Wikimedia volunteers have worked with cultural institutions in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands to take thousands of photographs of paintings and objects for Wikimedia Commons. This project is called “Wikipedia Loves Art.” Again, everybody wins: the museums and galleries gain greater exposure for the images, Wikipedia is better able to serve its audience, and people around the world are able to see cultural treasures they might otherwise never have had access to. (See the English Wikipedia page about the project and the Dutch project portal.)

  • Individual Wikimedia volunteers work with museums and archives to restore digital versions of old images by removing visible marks such as stains and scratches. The work is painstaking and difficult, but the results are terrific: the work is returned to its original glory, with its full informational value restored. Audiences can appreciate it once again. (Restoration work is coordinated through the “Potential restorations” page, and many examples of restoration can be found among Wikimedia’s featured pictures.)

Three Wikimedia volunteers have summarized these opportunities in an open letter: Working with, not against, cultural institutions. On August 6-7, Wikimedia Australia is organizing an event to explore these and other models of partnership with galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM).

Why do Wikimedia volunteers donate their time to painstaking restoration work, the photographing of art, and the negotiation of partnerships with cultural institutions? Because Wikimedia volunteers are dedicated to making information – including images of historic or informational importance – freely available to people around the world. Cultural institutions should not condemn Wikimedia volunteers: they should join forces with them in a shared mission.

We believe there are many wonderful opportunities for Wikimedia to work together with cultural institutions to educate, inform, and enlighten, and to share our cultural heritage. If you would like to get involved in the discussion, we invite you to join the Wikimedia Commons mailing list. Subscribe and introduce yourself – the list is read by many Wikimedia volunteers and by some volunteers associated with Wikimedia chapters as well as some Wikimedia Foundation staff. Alternatively, if there is a chapter in your country, you may want to get in touch with them directly. You can also contact the Wikimedia Foundation. Please feel free to send me your first thoughts at erik(at)wikimedia(dot)org, and I will connect you as appropriate.

The NPG is angry that a Wikimedia volunteer seems to have uploaded to Commons photographs of public domain paintings that are owned by the NPG. Intitially it sent threatening letters to the Wikimedia Foundation, asking us to “destroy all the images”. (Contrary to public claims, these letters did not include an offer for compromise. The NPG is possibly confusing its correspondence with a letter exchange in 2006 with a Wikimedia volunteer, which the user published here.) The NPG’s position seems to be that the user has violated copyright law in posting the images.

Both the NPG and Wikimedia agree that the paintings depicted in these images are in the public domain – many of these portraits are hundreds of years old, all long out of copyright. However, the NPG claims that it holds a copyright to the reproduction of these images (while also controlling access to the physical objects). In other words, the NPG believes that the slavish reproduction of a public domain painting without any added originality conveys a new full copyright to the digital copy, creating the opportunity to monetize this digital copy for many decades. The NPG is therefore effectively asserting full control over these public domain paintings.

The Wikimedia Foundation has no reason to believe that the user in question has violated any applicable law, and we are exploring ways to support the user in the event that NPG follows up on its original threat. We are open to a compromise around the specific images, but our position on the legal status of these images is unlikely to change. Our position is shared by legal scholars and by many in the community of galleries, libraries, archives, and museums. In 2003, Peter Hirtle, 58th president of the Society of American Archivists, wrote:

“The conclusion we must draw is inescapable. Efforts to try to monopolize our holdings and generate revenue by exploiting our physical ownership of public domain works should not succeed. Such efforts make a mockery of the copyright balance between the interests of the copyright creator and the public.” [source]

Some in the international GLAM community have taken the opposite approach, and even gone so far to suggest that GLAM institutions should employ digitial watermarking and other Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) technologies to protect their alleged rights over public domain objects, and to enforce those rights aggressively.

The Wikimedia Foundation sympathizes with cultural institutions’ desire for revenue streams to help them maintain services for their audiences. And yet, if that revenue stream requires an institution to lock up and severely limit access to its educational materials, rather than allowing the materials to be freely available to everyone, that strikes us as counter to those institutions’ educational mission. It is hard to see a plausible argument that excluding public domain content from a free, non-profit encyclopedia serves any public interest whatsoever.

Erik Moeller
Deputy Director, Wikimedia Foundation