The Wikipedia/National Portrait Gallery spat continues…

by Mark Hayhurst

As many of you will be aware there have been some heated exchanges between the contributors and owners of Wikipedia on the one hand and the National Portrait Gallery in London on the other recently. These exchanges relate to the unauthorised publication on Wikipedia of high-resolution images of art works in the NPG’s collection. The row centres around the fact that the NPG, while it has freely made available low- resolution images of a large part of its collection (and indeed is willing to make medium-resolution media available as well), relies on income from licensing of high-resolution images. Its project to digitise its collection has been an ongoing and expensive one and it is hardly surprising that it should seek to protect the rights it has to these items.

Many people are a little confused as the art works themselves have no copyright attached to them, the originating artists being long-since deceased. However the NPG is asserting its copyright over the photographic representations that it has gone to considerable effort, and with not insignificant cost, to create.

The Wikipedia contributor who uploaded the high-res images has admitted that he deliberately circumvented the NPG’s normal formats for publishing images in order to obtain and republish many thousands of images. Now the NPG should certainly feel rather sheepish that they allowed the content to be left open to this back-door access but it does seem that Wikipedia’s own stance is rather more bullish than it should be given the circumstances.

It is clear that images of works are freely available for people to view and use for casual purposes and long may this remain so. It is not clear how Wikipedia an assert that it is in the vital public interest that they should have unfettered access to high-res versions and hardly surprising that the NPG feel that their fragile revenue model is under threat if items they would license for several thousand dollars to magazine, book and catalogue publishers are now instead obtained by a simple internet download. As a publicly funded body, the British tax-payer, still reeling from the expenses scandals that have dogged the political system in the UK recently, will also no doubt have a word or two to say on the matter.