Why we need to be more collaborative to benefit from public art collections

nasmyth inventor of steam hammern by Hill and Adamson 1844 from NGS

Portrait of James Naysmith, Inventor of the Steam Hammer, by Robert Adamson and David Octavious Hill 1844 from the National Galleries of Scotland photostream on the Flickr Commons

The latest Skirmish in the Great Struggle for Control over Digitised Content is between London’s National Portrait Gallery and Wikipedia developer Derek Coetzee.  The NPG has challenged Coetze’s unauthorised use on Wikipedia of high resolution images of around 3000 paintings.  Although ostensibly the issues are about rights control, the skirmish raises some serious questions about how we get the best public benefit of our art work.

The first order issue is that all art works held in trust for the public should be as widely available and accessible as possible. All digital impressions of the original art work should be easily available and visibly promoted.

There are several second order issues which cloud focus on this central premise.  Some of these are technical.  In a global virtual world, the legal interpretation of  the ‘rights’ over art works  differs and indeed the difference between US and UK copyright legislation is one of the issues at stake in the NPG Wikipedia Skirmish.  Coetze cites Bridgeman v. Corel which suggests that photographs of public domain paintings do not carry any copyright, since the photograph does not add any new expression.  There is also the issue of breaching the database of NPG according to the full letter from NPG solicitors Farrer and Co uploaded by Coetze  on wikipedia.  NPG certainly has a case to make.

We can sympathise with our colleagues at the National Portrait Gallery.  The trustees not only have to ensure that the paintings are conserved for the benefit of the nation but also to ensure compliance with government and fiscal policy and legislation.  They are likely to be suffering from the ongoing challenges to their economic sustainability arising from the recession, with likely further reductions of the public subsidy upon which they depend.  And they are likely committed to maximising access using all means especially the internet.  Digitisation of the collection is not only in itself a very great and costly task but also involves intricate navigation through the tangle of individual, national and international rights issues.

But trying to hold back the tide of collaborative appreciation of art is both counter intuitive and counter productive.  The more people can appreciate art the better and the higher quality the images the better.  The wider the circulation of the images the more likely people are to want to see the real thing.  And the chances of the NPG creating a sustainable income stream from exploitation of its digital images are next to nothing.

Many of us believe that all creative content should be common, including Christian Engtrom of   Sweden’s Pirate Party.   Some of us also advocate using monies raised from rights to fund experimentation and aspirational creative content, in the way that the  Eady levy did for cinema last century. This would mean using royalty incomes raised from the digitisation of creative content produced for past platforms to fund future creative content and social innovation.

The current complex arrangements for using digital images of public works stymie most of us who want to promote art, artists and our public collections on our blogs.  The NPG tells us how easy it is to apply but it wont be instant -and so is no use for the real time blogger.   So we end up using poorer quality images taken by individuals with their own digital cameras and posting them under the Creative Commons license on Flickr (while they may or may not have the rights to do so) , use images without permission, or use them from the Commons stream on Flickr, as above. This stream include images which have no known copyright restrictions from a group of museums from around the world keen to promote and share where they can including the Smithsonian and the National Galleries of Scotland.

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