The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in the United Kingdom holds the most extensive collection of portraits in the world. Over the past five years, the gallery has been working on its £1 million project of digitising its entire collection for viewing online. In addition to the low resolution images of the complete works, the NPG recently began adding high-resolution images which allow viewers to “zoomify” sections of images. These images are protected by software which does not allow users to copy the images, but only to zoom in on them. The NPG website has specific pages addressing copyright, the use of images and obtaining image permission and explicitly prohibits “reproduction of any kind in any medium” and “storage in any medium including extraction into any other database, computer programme or website”. The NPG does not charge an admission fee into the gallery, and as such, they rely on the £339,000 in revenue they receive from copyright and licensing fees, as well as reproduction fees from books and magazines.
In March, Wikipedia volunteer Derrick Coetzee was able to use special software to de-scramble the high resolution tiles thus allowing him to capture the whole portrait in high resolution. Coetzee was able to capture about 3,300 high-resolution images, which were then uploaded to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. The NPG requested that Wikipedia remove the images from its database, but when Wikipedia did not do so, NPG threatened legal proceedings for breach of copyright against Coetzee, unless he deleted the images both from Wikipedia and from his own hard drive by July 20th. As of Tuesday, the portraits were still available on Wikipedia. The portraits themselves are part of the public domain, as their term of copyright protection has expired. In the US, photographs of public domain works are not copyrightable, but under UK law, copyright may subsist in a photograph of a public domain painting.
Erik Moeller, the deputy director of the Wikimedia Foundation, states that the gallery is limiting public access to materials for the sake of earning extra revenue. The NPG responded that they will only be able to meet their goal of having their entire collection online through self-generated income, and having the images available online at Wikipedia jeopardizes NPGs ability to licence the use of its images. Moeller also stated that two German photographic archives donated 350,000 copyrighted images to be used on Wikipedia; however, the NPG pointed out that these archives had supplied the images in medium-resolution and that the NPG had offered similar material to Wikipedia.
The digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation has voiced its concern that this dispute could negatively affect U.S. web companies who make their content available world-wide, and the group has not ruled out the possibility of bringing a declaratory judgment against the NPG. On the other side of the dispute, the NPG has stated it has no intention to sue Wikipedia; however, since the July 20th deadline has passed and the images are still available on Wikipedia (and presumably Coetzee’s hard drive) it will be interesting to see if the NPG takes any legal action against Coetzee.