In mid-July 2009 Wikinews published an article claiming that the National Portrait Gallery in London threatened a U.S. citizen with legal action since he had allegedly breached the museum’s copyright of several thousands of photographs of works of art. Apparently, the young American Derrick Coetzee had come up with a program that automatically would download high resolution imagery from the National Portrait Gallery’s website, images that Coetzee as a regular contributor to Wikimedia Commons uploaded to the site. Wikimedia Commons is the database of free-to-use media that Wikipedia writers use for illustrations; today the database contains some five million photographs. The digital images that Coetzee uploaded were exact digitized reproductions of artworks, drawings and older photographs. Since the holdings of the National Portrait Gallery consisted of mostly older material, Coetzee considered the digital reproductions to belong to the public domain and thus free for public use under United States law (where he and Wikimedia Commons were based). The crux of the matter was that copyright to digital reproductions was claimed to exist in the U.K. where the museum was situated. Hence, in “a letter from [the museum’s] solicitors sent to Coetzee via electronic mail, the National Portrait Gallery asserted that it holds copyright in the photographs under U.K. law.” They demanded that Coetzee provided undertakings to remove all of the images from Wikimedia Commons.
Continue reading my article, “Archival Transitions: Some Digital Propositions” – fortcoming in Media, Popular Culture, and the American Century (eds.) Kingsley Bolton & Jan Olsson (Stockholm: KB/John Libbey Press, 2011) – here.