Thursday, 16 July 2009

The NPG's response to the Wikimedia kerfuffle

[Apparently responses are being listed on a Wikimedia page, which I suppose makes sense but please bear in mind this is usually read by about five people who know my flippant self in real life]

I haven't been able to get the press release section of the National Portrait gallery to load, so I'm linking to an email from the NPG posted as a comment on another blog.  I'm still thinking this through, but currently the important bit, to me, is this:

The Gallery is very concerned that potential loss of licensing income from the high-resolution files threatens its ability to reinvest in its digitisation programme and so make further images available. It is one of the Gallery’s primary purposes to make as much of the Collection available as possible for the public to view.

Digitisation involves huge costs including research, cataloguing, conservation and highly-skilled photography. Images then need to be made available on the Gallery website as part of a structured and authoritative database.

Obviously, I am paid by a museum to put things online so I might be biased towards something that ultimately means my job exists - but while a government funding gap exists, someone has to pay the magical digitisation fairies. [This doesn't mean I think it's right, but the situation is not going to be changed by an adversarial relationship between WMF and the cultural heritage sector, which is why this whole thing bothers me.  Lots of good work explaining the Commons models and encouraging access is being undone.]

You can't even argue that the NPG is getting increased exposure or branding through the use of their images, as there's a big question over whether images hosted on Wikimedia are being incorrectly given new attribution and rights statements.  Check the comment about the image on this blog post, and the Wikipedia statement from Wikimedia about the image and the original image page.  

To use a pub analogy, is Wikimedia the bad mate who shouts other people a round on your tab?


  1. I'd argue Wikipedia is more like the bad mate who shouts other people a round on your tab, but also helps you win the pub quiz.

    So you put up with him, because it's better to have him there, than not have him ;-)

    More seriously, interesting that this comes on the day Ithaka release their report on cultural/digital sustainability (

    Haven't had time to read through the rport properly yet, but all in all, one threat of legal action will not change the playing field; hopefully implementing some of the recommendations and ideas in that report could do.

  2. I concur with your thoughts. I don't think Wikimedia is, however, anything other than extremely naive not to have thought things through a bit better. That they couldn't even respond promptly (allegedly) to original complains by NPG is highly unprofessional and this in itself has lowered them in my esteem.

    By and large I think the NPG's response is balanced and correct. We should all be well aware by now that someone has to foot the bill for this quality of digitisation and delivery. It occurs to me that the 'free, free' mob is just as naive as WM in this regard.

    Perhaps Wikimedia could do what Wikipedia did last year and have a large campaign to raise money for organisations to digitise and make available some of their content by way of return? I also don't see any reason why WM needs to host such high res images; a decent image doesn't have to be art catalogue quality and a link to the zoomify image on the organisation's own website would surely suffice in the bid to 'open up access'.

  3. Mia, Mia Mia! Of course you're biased! I am too.. but I think about it this way: What ought a museum do?

    How should museums react to people taking the initiative to spread The Good Word, perfect or not? Do Museums exist to act as another layer of control and privilege guarding history, art and culture? Are museums for ensuring the only ones who can receive the sum of our knowledge and expertise are those who can afford to pay us for it?

    Does anyone actually think we'll make enough money off these assets to really make a difference in huge funding gaps?

    Has ANY institution done anything other than fund further digization?

    Should museums sacrifice and jeopardize our collective mission of knowledge transfer for a few filthy bucks?

    I say no. Museums are for proliferation of these objects. I have no argument with the attribution issue, they should be accurately captioned.. but at the end of the day, this stuff is Old, Mia! Really old! The image belongs to the public, the object belongs to the public (usually) ... so how can we justify an institution saying "No, dude.. you can't have access to these images, even though everyone, collectively, owns them."

  4. That example you point to about attribution was certainly a poor example of dealing with attribution on the part of Wikimedia Commons (although the image page does now include a proper link to the museum that holds the painting).

    But in the case of these NPG images that were uploaded recently, they all include links to the relevant pages on the NPG website. Although there will always be errors and problems, Wikimedia Commmons tries to be as conscientious as possible in providing links to museums and other image sources and even to include metadata like archive record numbers and such.

  5. AnonymousJuly 16, 2009

    "You can't even argue that the NPG is getting increased exposure or branding through the use of their images"

    Actually, you can argue that. After the German Federal Archives donated 100,000 photographs to Wikipedia, its sales of those images increased significantly. See this article at the Wikipedia Signpost for more info.

    Also the NPG's claim that Wikipedia refused to enter into dialog is bogus. It is actually the NPG that broke off discussions in 2006 and decided to resort to harrassment rather than dialog. See this email exchange for example.

  6. I've gone back and had a look at the example National Maritime Museum image, and nowhere on the page does it credit the museum.

    If you click through to the source listed - a Slovakian Wikipedia page rather than a Wikimedia page - ( and scroll, it lists the 'Current location' of the painting as 'National Maritime Museum' and provides a link to the page as 'Source'. So there is an attribution but it might be a bit too obscure at the moment.

    On the NMM page, it lists the credit as: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. This information, and the similar copyright statement, are lost on Wikipedia/Wikimedia.

    If Wikimedia could make a better effort to provide clear attribution, that would be a good step towards a more amicable and sustainable relationship between Wikimedia and cultural heritage institutions.

    Reconsidering the effect that this statement has is a bigger step, but would have a much more powerful effect: "The official position taken by the Wikimedia Foundation is that "faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain, and that claims to the contrary represent an assault on the very concept of a public domain". ... This photographic reproduction is therefore also considered to be in the public domain."

    My official position could be that my morning coffee should be made for me, but that doesn't make it realistic or right, even if I have the best possible motives for wishing it to be so.

    More importantly, Wikimedia's attitude as seen in the statement above is going to make internal conversations about digitisation much more difficult and will probably undermine any attempt to put higher res collection images online.

    In the end, we all lose, and that's what bothers me.

    Addressing comments in order:

    Peer - this isn't about Wikipedia!

    Tehmina - you've hit the nail on the head: "I also don't see any reason why WM needs to host such high res images; a decent image doesn't have to be art catalogue quality and a link to the zoomify image on the organisation's own website would surely suffice in the bid to 'open up access'."

    (And thank you for expanding on your points in your post at

    Ryan - as Tehmina points out, the public have access to them already on the NPG site. Museums have been making huge strides in opening up access, in letting go control - and this situation is going to set it all back. I can only imagine how this is being talked about by curators and picture library managers. And I don't know how this will affect their trust in the museum geeks who've been arguing for more openness - time will tell.

    More importantly, it does highlight that the current situation - where we're expected to throw open the scanners and digitise our little hearts out to provide access yet simultaneously provide only just enough access that we don't impact on the commercial arms of a museum selling licences or higher res versions - probably isn't tenable. I think everyone would agree with you there.

    Sage - thanks for your perspective. Out of curiosity, where did the links to the relevant NPG pages appear, and how were they labelled?

    I found the open letter on 'Working with, not against, cultural institutions', and thought it did a really good job explaining the issues. (

    Hi, Anonymous. I haven't seen the pages with NPG images so don't know if they did a better job of providing attribution and a link to the original source more immediately and obviously but a crucial difference between the Bundesarchiv and the NPG is that the Bundesarchiv gave their consent. The NPG clearly didn't. Regardless of the legalities, the impact of that alone is vital.

    [I've been lazy about doing links properly above, but hey, I'm on holiday and no-one's brought me my morning coffee yet.]

  7. As an aside...
    The funding model under which it is assumed organisations, museums etc will recoup costs for activities they must and need to perform, like collection digitisation for preservation, public access and open research demand is wrong. Governments running their heritage institutions using these antiquated (1980’s pre internet even) businesses models are the problem. The idea that a collection repository for a nation or state should have wholly even partially funding linked to recouping on the costs for what are going to be critical preservation activities for a nation’s material culture is a real problem. To ditch it would definitively relax competing interests, make online interests and relationships on matters like this equitable, the little museum will not have to feel it needs to compete with the wiki juggernaut which will always be a step or two ahead no matter what it does. That’s my utopia. I don’t know of any enlightened government to have adopted such an outrageous position.
    I don't mean that funding links need to be fully broken, but representational (you should still have to buy that coffee which is made for you to justify the café). One hand needs to still be able to account to the other for what it spends. People with much more expertise than I would have written papers on better solutions surely probably delivered at conferences I’m never allowed to attend. My observations are just my own take on it but I’m sure they’re not unique.
    I have problems as to the assumed ‘ownership’ by these institutions of the ‘representation’ of the works, objects, images they are the custodians for. When a visual representation is presented to demonstrate the research or for another form of communicative dissemination this is exempt from in my view from matters of commerce. Attribution though must be correct or corrected if it is not.
    But if it ends up on a tee towel or a book cover then you’d have my attention.

  8. Hi Mia, I don't intend to get into the specifics of the NPG/Wikimedia situation.

    What I do think is interesting, however, is to look at the situation in its broader context.

    Our sector has changed in at least one significant way: that we have used one part of our overall public offer (collections of artefacts) to create a new function for ourselves that is much more akin to a Public Service Broadcaster.

    I would argue that this was a change for which we are ill-prepared, at every level from leadership through to delivery, and with which we are still catching up.

    It may have been naive of us, but probably necessary in light of broader socio-cultural, economic and consumer shifts. In this context, I think that the NPG/Wikimedia is only the opening salvo in an incipient war.

    You cannot move an entire industry into a new line of work without either damaging it, or coming into conflict with the people who already occupy the territory into which we are moving (or both).

    The fight between free public domain content and industries based on paid-for material is not ours - it belongs to publishers, broadcasters, software developers and others whose very existence depend on the dual (moral/economic) nature of Intellectual Property law.

    That we have wandered into the middle of it without a clear line on where we stand is indicative of our naivety.

    NPG is an interesting test case both because it is staffed by incredibly committed, principled people who are capable of taking a measured approach and also because it is well-defended. Others are not, and I just hope that by the time this happens to the collections of the Galleries of Justice, or the Geffrye Museum, we have a better, more coherent response which is less prone to knee-jerk polarising polemic.

  9. @Nick - interesting point. I'd have thought museums were closer to publishers than broadcasters, but that's perhaps because our main output still tends to be written text with accompanying images rather than moving images or audio.

    I'd say that proves rather than detracts from the point that we, as a sector and as organisations, need to have big conversations about the functions of museums, and about how museums function, in 2009. Our internal dissonance about the role of IP and copyright and the tension between the drive to provide access and the current 'picture library' commercialisation model isn't going to disappear.

    The NPG/Wikimedia issue is a symptom of that internal conflict. I have no idea of the current state of negotiations but imagine that compromise is needed on both sides. The issue might, in a perfect universe, be a driver for change, or it might simply cause museums to batten down the hatches until it's somehow safe to emerge.

    @Lee-Anne - if you come across any of these expert-written papers with better solutions, let me know! It seems to me it's an issue that doesn't yet have a realistic solution.