The whole NPG / Wikimedia thing

There’s acres and acres of stuff to read and write about the whole National Portrait Gallery legal action threat against Wikimedia contributor Dcoetzee and his addition to the Wikimedia collection. I’m not going to try and add to the noise too much but it would seem apposite to at least comment given my current thread of presentations and posts is all about freedom, openness and MRD.

As always (just like the argument currently brewing about Free), there are two possible dangers in any debate like this. First, we go into too much detail and lose the view of the house because we’re examining the bricks too closely. Second, we polarise the debate.

I’m good at polarising, being a bear of simple brain – particularly when it comes to copyright. Simply, I don’t think it works in many cases, and I think this particular example holds – on many levels – great reasons as to why not. Cross-country, cross-domain, cross-sector, hidden images, non-hidden images, etc etc. This level of complexity doesn’t hold well with users, and they will abuse, either knowingly or unknowingly.

Having said that, there are clearly two sides to this particular debate, and actually I think both sides are being pretty reasonable. NPG have offered medium sized pictures; Wikimedia has been on the case for some years seeking access to these (arguably) public domain images. The discussion over the detail in this particular case will ramble on; the legal threat will be sorted out of court; everyone will ultimately go away at least semi-happy.

The bigger picture is the more important question, and it is this: why are cultural institutions putting collection (images) online? I ask this as an open question, as un-loaded as it can be (given you probably know where I’m coming from on this).

The possible answers are these (none is mutually exclusive, by the way):

  • to sell them / variations of them, such as prints, etc
  • to increase exposure to them
  • to increase exposure to the holding institution
  • to increase ticket sales / physical visits to the holding institution

So with these in mind, I think the important questions in this particular debate are not about the devil detail of cross-country copyright or whether Dcoetzee “should” have done what he did. I think they are:

  • does the exposure on Wikimedia increase exposure? (Answer: yes)
  • does exposure of hi-res pictures stop people from buying them (Answer: unknown, but possibly not)
  • does the exposure of the images improve the standing of the institution (as being a place that “has a great collection”) ? (Answer: yes)
  • does the exposure of the images increase click-through to the NPG website (and hence, assuming at least some kind of connection between traffic and physical visits) ? (Answer: unknown – I’m about to submit a FOI request to see if we can find out, but probably yes)
  • does the threat of legal action make NPG look good? (Answer: not really)

There’s some great questions here, which I’ve been asking our sector to answer for a while. Where is value in a networked age? How does virtual equate to physical? Does exposure increase or decrease physical sales (go ask Anderson or Gladwell this one…).

Just as a closing thought, I wonder if the NPG will be chasing Yahoo! for this YQL query or Google Images for this one? I suspect not.

20 thoughts on “The whole NPG / Wikimedia thing”

  1. A very nice round-up of the ‘real’ issues at play here.

    The only additional thing I’d say is that if there is/was no attribution (which there may have been originally in this case), then it’s a much bigger deal – it certainly wouldn’t have improved the standing of the institution or led to increased click-throughs.

  2. @Dan – very good point. Yes, absolutely. And the question about how best to flag the attribution is an ongoing one, too (watermark, hidden watermark, Flash container, etc).

    When I was at SciM I wanted to have an easy embed link to allow people to use our images which punted out some HTML including a link back to the original site, attribution, etc. As per lot of other stuff, I never got round to it but I wonder if a YouTube-like “embed this image” module might work for museum collection images. * thinks…*

  3. I can sympathise with both sides in this dispute.
    One problem is that the US has “public domain” and the UK (& Europe) does not. The difference in copyright laws has been a sore point for 100 years or more. Artists in the 19th century moaned about US publishers making money from unauthorised reproductions of their work!

    I have really wanted to use NPG images in web articles on not-for-profit, publicly-funded UK cultural heritage web sites. Web pages with just text are very dull & don’t encourage people to read and remember information. Their rate for using their images on web sites is too expensive for publicly-funded projects on tight budgets.
    On the other hand, the images are in the care of the NPG. They have public funding to care for & provide access to the collection, but like all heritage collections, their Gov-provided funding will not cover the costs and they have to make as much money as they can to bridge the gap and to continue to conserve, collect etc.
    Public collections do get exploited a lot because they don’t usually have resources to sue.
    Personally, I think that the answer is to allow people to use low-res images of medium size on suitable not-for-profit web sites, with link to NPG site (& shop!).

  4. Just had another thought…

    As an extreme example, it’s not like every use of the Mona Lisa image online attributes The Louvre, but the more it’s used, does it perhaps *increase* the value of the original? Even without attribution? Or does this only work for the very occasional ‘well known’ painting?

  5. To answer your point

    “does exposure of hi-res pictures stop people from buying them?”

    I would say from my point-of-view part of the fun of visiting a museum/gallery/etc is going to the gift shop!

    The ability to print off images myself doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest; however being able to blog, or write about said trip to a gallery with image links of favorite paintings etc. – now that would be really valuable for me.

  6. You know my position on this – one of my team, Paula Bray, looked at the economic implications over here –

    The circumvention of Zoomify is probably what it will come down to irrespective of the pros and cons otherwise – which is a shame.

    These are arguments we need at all levels. And at some stage the public who fund institutions need to be asked whether they are willing to, through taxes, financially pay for the real cost of these institutions and collections.

  7. Could the NPG’s reaction also be to do with the fact that they see the digital images as an extension of their real works of art – I don’t just mean that they own them, but that they curate them, manage them, interpret them, ‘protect’ them , etc.

    I think that there is evidence of intellectual snobbery in the way that they have reacted with such horror that their images are now on Wikipedia, can be found there first, and that no one has to read their own trusted, reliable and scholarly (as they would see it!) information! By freeing the images the images also become free to interpretation – you and I may think this is a good thing, but there are definitely some people in museums who think not!

    I personally see a strong connection between NPG’s suing of Wikipedia and Nicholas Penney’s comments about the uncivilised behaviour outside the National Gallery door – society is changing, but it seems some museums want us to remain firmly in the past with a public of quiet consumers who gratefully take what they’re given.

  8. @Janet – clearly, the NPG has a burden of cost in maintaining these collections. The question here is whether they (we) can find better, more reactive, more “networked” ways of exposing (or not!) and money-making from those collections. My line always has been – we need *more* information, more tests, more evidence and less ostriching of the challenges that freely-available data brings

    @Dan, @Julian – yes, I think the question about invisible value attribution is one that probably won’t (or can’t) be answered. The fact that I know that the Mona Lisa is at the Louvre might be something I learnt from the web at large, or Wikimedia, or Google, or maybe my mum. Who knows, and who – more to the point – can put financial or social value on that knowledge, or source of that knowledge?

    @Seb – I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I haven’t read this paper, but will do so now 🙂 Although, yes, I know your angle on this stuff, and it is clearly incredibly valuable to begin to debate, research, test, try and – maybe – fail. And ditto, I think you’re right – this example is likely to be hijacked by the detail rather than the bigger picture…

  9. As regards Dan and Julian’s ‘invisible value attribution’ – you can measure this by asking “how much would it cost to have this sort of ‘brand reach’ (eek!) using traditional methods?”.

  10. @Linda – yes, and that’s a really valuable point. The fear of whatever this new thing is is absolutely understandable. Loss of control is at the heart of it, and it is so easy to see why that loss of control is challenging, both intellectually and financially.

    The thing is (and what I boringly bang on about all the time) – this stuff is *happening*, as this example demonstrates. And I could go out there tomorrow and do the same to any other cultural heritage website, using simple tools I’d built myself or stuff that is freely available like YQL or whatever.

    What we as a sector need to come up with are ways to react to the fact that this is inevitable. If stuff is online, people *will* use it, pirate it, copy it, mash it. Maybe our reaction will/should be – “well, balls to this, let’s just *remove* the bloody stuff, then” – and that might be the right answer. But court cases just aren’t, surely…

  11. Would love to see an experiment around the effect, on the bottom line, of (for example) exposing hires images. Do sales go down as people help themselves? Do sales go up as people are impressed by the quality and want to legally use them? Does it have no real effect on sales but other effects on general exposure of your collection, museum, whatever?

    Perhaps we could persuade someone to expose such data, perhaps finding some way to pay for any significant loss to be insured against, and see what happens…..

    Of course, actual metrics might not be really desirable to all. Like the music industry, perhaps there is going to be a significant rear-guard action devoted to protecting existing business models for as long as possible.

    There are a lot of vested interests here it seems to me – not necessarily just those directly involved in the actual court case….

    Good post BTW – useful roundup of some of the issues and some useful comments besides.


  12. @Paul – thanks for the comment.

    I suggested a similar value measuring exercise a while ago on the MCG list:

    “What would be fantastic (if unlikely) would be if a museum or gallery agreed to take part in a quantitative study: take one selection of images and hide them away behind watermarking, DRM and thumbnails; take another and make these widely and hugely available via Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, blogging, etc. Offer both sets for purchase in hi-res, then sit back and measure over a period of time. Common sense says that people will steal all the small ones and not bother buying: increasing bodies of evidence show the opposite is actually true.”

    I’d love to see such a study…

  13. Great idea about the FOI. If you have news about that, please email or drop me a line on Wikipedia (I’m User:Ragesoss there), as I write for Wikipedia’s community newspaper The Wikipedia Signpost and the results would be of great interest to us.

    As to Dan’s question of whether there were links to NPG, the answer is yes, links to the relevant pages at the NPG website were included from when all these images were first uploaded to Wikimedia Commons.

    On “circumvention of Zoomify”, I don’t think that’s much of an issue. First of all, Zoomify themselves say very clearly that it’s not a security system, it’s an image viewing system. Coetzee and the others who have used the same method to reconstruct hi-res images from Zoomify tiles are not really circumventing it. If the images are public domain, then it’s legal to capture any given tile (after all, it’s just a screengrab copy of a digital copy of a photograph of a PD painting), legal to collect the tiles for one image and stitch them together (because they’re all PD, so you can do whatever you want with them), and legal to do all that automatically with a script. And what’s more, because of the way image compression works, the end result will actually be a different file than the original that’s underneath Zoomify. So Zoomify isn’t being circumvented, it’s being used to provide hi-res public domain images that happen to be part of a larger whole that can be pieced together.

    The breach of contract bit is slightly more compelling, but only just.

    The real claim that muddies the waters is database right, which I don’t know much about but which seems like simply an unfortunate bit of law.

  14. I’d suggest reading Paula Bray’s paper (, as mentioned by Seb above).

    Were the images on Wikimedia actually attributed to the NPG? Does Wikimedia re-write the rights around the images they have reconstructed? Check Jim’s comment on If someone wanted to purchase a high res version, print or license, would they know who to ask?

    I should really post this to the MCG list, as I think these discussions are better held centrally, but I’m rushing out the door…

  15. @Mia – Yes, I think so, re. your question about attribution – see the current page and also Sage’s comment just before yours. I think it would have been pretty clear where to go to purchase hi-res versions. Not sure about the issue of re-writing rights.

  16. @Sage – thanks for your comment – very interesting to have the angle on Zoomify, as this has been a question asked on the Museums Computer Group list. When I get a second I’ll be submitting FOI requests.

  17. I just found that someone else has beat me to it requesting figures from the NPG, at least financial ones. See this page. I’ll also submit a request asking about any increase in referrers from Wikipedia/Wikimedia.

  18. The issue isn’t zoomify in itself, it has been suggested that the uploader circumvented zoomify and directly downloaded the images from the server. There is also the issue of the watermark, apparently the images contained one and under EU law, removing any form of copyright notice is a criminal matter and not a civil matter.

    The NPG have acted as nice as is possible, and wanted to enter dialogue with the WMF over the images, the WMF could host low resolution images, with the correct copyright notices, linked to the high resolution on the WMF website. The WMF firmly reject this however because of the copyright status, the WMF will only be happy if they can have the images themselves, the high resolution ones, under a PD licence, anything else just isn’t cricket!

    Lets face it though, how many blogs out there would *need* to post a high-res image? How many websites would happily set up the img tag, linked to a file that is over 1mb in size, when studies suggest that if a website doesn’t load in 3-5 seconds, or maybe 8, the person doesn’t visit the website?

    All the high res images are taken down now, so no one can enjoy them, I really don’t expect them to be put back up.

    ■does the exposure on Wikimedia increase exposure? – No, why go to the NPG site when you can find all the images on wikipedia instead, along with details on the person, and a huge notice at the bottom accusing the NPG (incorrectly) of copyfraud?

    ■does exposure of hi-res pictures stop people from buying them – It stops people licencing them, and because of the licence that the WMF has applied to them (which *is* copyfraud) people who view them on Wikipedia will be lead to believe copyright does not apply (when, it does, the WMF try to use a US ruling to justify their actions when the US ruling does not apply, and UK copyright experts say would not have passed in the UK anyhow)

    ■does the exposure of the images increase click-through to the NPG website (and hence, assuming at least some kind of connection between traffic and physical visits) – Interesting question. Not sure they would have to give the information of an FOI request though due to data protection laws.

    ■does the threat of legal action make NPG look good? – A better question, does the actions of the WMF in blatently ignoring UK copyright, accusing a British museum of copyfraud and threatening “bad publicity” make the WMF look good? Depends on which side of the fence you sit, supporters of the WMF will say the NPG is at fault, supporters of the NPG will say the WMF is at fault, legal experts say its a simple case of copyright theft, I’m going to do with the copyright experts on this one.

  19. Getting away from the specifics of *this* particular case and onto the broader issue of ‘who funds digitisation’ . . .

    From the BBC article

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

    “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 then for free, they will cease to invest in the digitisation of works, and everyone will be the poorer,” it wrote in an email to its members.”

    Surely the investment in digitisation by publicly funded institutions is not optional. Whether derivative works are or are not protected is irrelevant unless we are talking about private companies – and even then there are plenty of companies whose business models revolve around the republishing of out of Copyright material.

    We have a big problem if this sort of thinking spreads to public institutions.

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