Art Museum Threatens Lawsuit Over Public Domain Gallery Images Uploaded To Wikipedia
Earlier this year, Seattle resident Derrick Coetzee uploaded 3,000 high-resolution photos of portraits in the UK National Portrait Gallery to Wikipedia.
The portraits were themselves in the public domain, and in the U.S., photos of public domain works of art are not copyrightable. But the National Portrait Gallery says that photos of paintings can be copyrighted in the UK, and also alleges that databases are themselves protected as intellectual property under European Union laws.
The museum demanded that Wikipedia remove the images, including photos of portraits of Anne Boleyn, Charlotte Bronte and George Gordon Byron. When the online encyclopedia didn't do so, the National Portrait Gallery threatened Coetzee with legal action unless he deleted the images from both Wikipedia and his own hard drives by July 20. As of Wednesday, the images were still available on Wikipedia.
Now, the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation has become involved. Fred von Lohmann, an attorney with the organization, says the dispute between the museum and Coetzee/Wikipedia poses a question that could affect a broad swath of U.S. Web companies that make content available throughout the world: "Are they going to be bound by the most restrictive copyright law anywhere on the planet, or by U.S. law?"
The museum says it's worried that the images' availability on Wikipedia will hurt its ability to license the photos, according to press reports. The National Portrait Gallery currently offers 600,000 low-resolution images on its own Web site.
But von Lohmann says his client has no obligation to comply with another country's restrictive copyright law. "It's not the case that as an American you have to worry about the laws of every other country," he says. "The U.S. Congress has made decisions -- based in part on our constitution and our First Amendment -- that certain kinds of works are not copyrightable," he says.
He says he hopes to resolve the dispute with the National Portrait Gallery out of court, but isn't ruling out filing a lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment against the museum. "We have not taken any options off the table," he says.