National Portrait Gallery and Wikimedia Foundation copyright dispute

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Charles Darwin, by John Collier (1883), one of the images uploaded by Coetzee from the National Portrait Gallery's digital collection

In July 2009, lawyers representing the National Portrait Gallery of London (NPG) sent an email letter warning of possible legal action for alleged copyright infringement to Derrick Coetzee, an editor/administrator of the free content multimedia repository Wikimedia Commons, hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation.

NPG claims[edit]

In 2009, a letter sent by representatives of Britain's National Portrait Gallery stated that Derrick Coetzee had downloaded more than 3,300 high-resolution images from the gallery's database of images and had posted them for re-use on Wikimedia Commons.[1][2][3]

The NPG letter stated the claim that while the painted portraits may be old (and have thus fallen into the public domain), the high-quality photographic reproductions are recent works, and qualify as copyrighted works due to the amount of work it took to digitize and restore them,[2][4][5] that the action of uploading the images infringed on both the NPG's database rights and copyrights,[3][4][6][7] and that the images were obtained through the circumvention of technical measures used to prevent downloading of the prints.[8] The NPG also stated that the public availability of the images would affect revenue acquired from licensing the images to third parties, revenue also used to fund the project of digitizing their collection,[7] an effort that the NPG claims cost the organization over £1,000,000.[1] The NPG had requested a response from Coetzee by 20 July 2009, and requested that the images be removed from the site, but noted that the NPG was not considering any legal action against the Wikimedia Foundation.[2][3] The NPG announced that Coetzee had responded via his legal representative by the requested deadline.[4][9] Coetzee's legal representation was provided by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.[2]

Coetzee publicly posted a copy of the legal letter from the NPG, indicating that he desired to "enable public discourse on the issue".[1] On 17 July 2009, NPG gallery spokesperson Eleanor Macnair stated that "contact has now been made" with the Wikimedia Foundation and "we remain hopeful that a dialogue will be possible."[2] The NPG has stated that it would be willing to permit Wikipedia to use low-resolution images, and that it hoped to avoid taking any further legal action.[1] The NPG had previously attempted to contact the Wikimedia Foundation in April 2009 regarding this issue, but did not receive an immediate response.[1]

The British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA), an image industry trade group, expressed support for the gallery.[5]

In early 2010, an NPG spokesperson reported to Heise Open, a division of German publishing house Heinz Heise, "We had a constructive discussion in December and are now considering how best to come to an agreement."[10] In November 2010, Tom Morgan, Head of Rights and Reproductions at the National Portrait Gallery addressed a conference attended by both Wikipedians and representatives of cultural institutions. Morgan's presentation was entitled "Wikipedia and the National Portrait Gallery – A bad first date? A perspective on the developing relationship between Wikipedia and cultural heritage organisations".[11]


The 1999 United States District Court case Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp. (in which Bridgeman Art Library sued the Corel Corporation for copyright infringement for distributing copies of digital reproductions of public domain paintings sourced from Bridgeman on a CD-ROM) established that "a photograph which is no more than a copy of a work of another as exact as science and technology permits lacks originality. That is not to say that such a feat is trivial, simply not original."[12] As a result, reproductions of works that have fallen into the public domain cannot attract any new copyright in the United States.[12] As such, local policies of the Wikimedia Commons web site ignore any potential copyright that could subsist in reproductions of public domain works.[5]

However, British case law can take into account the amount of skill and labour that took place in the creation of a work for considering whether it can be copyrighted in that country.[5] The letter from the National Portrait Gallery demands that the case should be heard in the UK under UK law and not in the US under US law. The issue of jurisdiction is complicated as the National Portrait Gallery is located in the United Kingdom, but Wikimedia Commons, and the uploader, are both located within the United States. The letter also claims that by making the images freely available on Wikimedia Commons, Coetzee would also be liable under the British Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 for any copyright infringement committed by other users who download and use the images.[1][8]


Response by the Wikimedia Foundation[edit]

Erik Möller, deputy director of the Wikimedia Foundation, made a statement on the issue, clarifying the stance of the Wikimedia Foundation on the incident.[6][13] Möller stated that although the NPG has agreed that the images are in the public domain, the NPG had contended that they own the exclusive rights to their reproductions of the images, using this to monetize their collection and assert control over public domain content.[13] Möller also stated "It is hard to see a plausible argument that excluding public domain content from a free, non-profit encyclopaedia serves any public interest whatsoever."[6] Möller further described the agreement that other cultural institutions have made with Wikipedia to disseminate images: two German photographic archives donated 350,000 copyrighted images, and other institutions in the United States and the UK have made material available for use.[6] The NPG stated that the images released by the German archives were medium resolution images, and that the NPG had offered to share images of the same quality.[6]

A reporter for the BBC stated that the NPG made a total of £339,000 from licensing images for use in traditional publications in 2008.[6]

Response by the EFF[edit]

Fred von Lohmann, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), remarked that the situation comes down to asking whether US companies and citizens would be "bound by the most restrictive copyright law anywhere on the planet, or by U.S. law?"[14] In a legal analysis, Lohmann contended that under US law, the NPG's "browse wrap" contract was not enforceable, database rights are not implemented at all, and that "using Zoomify on public domain images doesn't get you a DMCA claim."[15] Lohmann also observed:

NPG seems to think that UK law should apply everywhere on the Internet. If that's right, then the same could be said for other, more restrictive copyright laws, as well (see, e.g., Mexico's copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years and France's copyright over fashion designs). That would leave the online world at the mercy of the worst that foreign copyright laws have to offer, an outcome no U.S. court has ever endorsed.[15]

Current licensing[edit]

In 2012, the National Portrait Gallery licensed 53,000 low-resolution images under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license,[16][17] making them available free of charge for non-commercial use, although not suitable for Wikimedia Commons or Wikipedia. A further 87,000 high-resolution images are available for academic use under the Gallery's own license that invites donations in return; previously, the Gallery charged for high-resolution images.[18]

By 2012, 100,000 images, around a third of the Gallery's collection, had been digitized.[18]

In November 2015, the United Kingdom's Intellectual Property Office clarified in an informational document that, based on the opinion of the European Court of Justice, "copyright can only subsist in subject matter that is original in the sense that it is the author's own 'intellectual creation'. Given this criterion, it seems unlikely that what is merely a retouched, digitised image of an older work can be considered as 'original'."[19]

As of January 2024, the NPG still display a "© National Portrait Gallery, London" notice next to images such as the Darwin portrait shown above, claiming that they are only licensed by them for "limited non-commercial use", and displaying fees and terms for academic or commercial use.[20] The Wikimedia Foundation continue to host the images, with notices saying (e.g. in the Darwin case) "The author died in 1934, so this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or fewer."[21]

The collection at Wikimedia Commons appeared to encourage sales by NPG: according to Andrea Wallace, "Rather than damaging their profitability, the NPG reported 36/50 of the top selling images from 2010–2015 came from these".[22]

THJ v. Sheridan, 2023[edit]

A November 2023 Appeal Court judgement (THJ v. Sheridan, 2023) by Lord Justice Arnold clarified that, in the UK, no new copyright is created in making a photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional public domain artwork, and that this has been the case since 2009.[23][24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Cohen, Noam (19 July 2009). "Wikipedia May Be a Font of Facts, but It's a Desert for Photos". New York Times. Archived from the original on 10 November 2011. Retrieved 28 July 2009.
  2. ^ a b c Kennedy, Maev (14 July 2009). "Legal row over National Portrait Gallery images placed on Wikipedia". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 13 February 2017. Retrieved 28 July 2009.
  3. ^ a b c "Wikipedia vs. Portrait Gallery: the Line is Crossed". Artnet News. artnet Worldwide Corporation. 21 July 2009. Archived from the original on 14 August 2009. Retrieved 27 July 2009.
  4. ^ a b c d "NPG and BAPLA at war with Wikipedia". British Journal of Photography. 22 July 2009. Archived from the original on 5 August 2009. Retrieved 1 August 2009.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Cellan-Jones, Rory (17 July 2009). "Wikipedia painting row escalates". BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on 23 July 2009. Retrieved 28 July 2009.
  6. ^ a b King, Leo (16 July 2009). "UK National Portrait Gallery in legal fight with Wikipedia". Computerworld. Archived from the original on 7 June 2011. Retrieved 28 July 2009.
  7. ^ a b Orlowski, Andrew (13 July 2009). "National Portrait Gallery bitchslaps Wikipedia". The Register. Archived from the original on 17 July 2009. Retrieved 27 July 2009.
  8. ^ Cheesman, Chris (21 July 2009). "Wikipedia man beats gallery's legal threat deadline (update 21 July)". Amateur Photographer. Archived from the original on 28 January 2016. Retrieved 31 August 2015.
  9. ^ Kleinz, Torsten (2 February 2010). "UK museums open up to Wikimedia". Heinz Heise. Archived from the original on 6 February 2010. Retrieved 3 February 2010.
  10. ^ Wikimedia UK blog post Archived 6 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine, "GLAM-WIKI Schedule Announced", 14 November 2010. Accessed 28 November 2010
  11. ^ a b Filler, Stephen C. (9 December 2006). "Copyright Protection and Subject Matter in Photographs". Archived from the original on 9 December 2006.
  12. ^ a b Möller, Erik (16 July 2009). "Protecting the public domain and sharing our cultural heritage". Wikimedia Foundation. Archived from the original on 21 July 2009. Retrieved 28 July 2009.
  13. ^ Davis, Wendy (21 July 2009). "Art Museum Threatens Lawsuit Over Public Domain Gallery Images Uploaded To Wikipedia". Mediapost. Archived from the original on 25 July 2009. Retrieved 3 August 2009.
  14. ^ a b von Lohmann, Fred (3 August 2009). "EFF Defends Wikipedian's Right to the Public Domain". Electronic Frontier Foundation. Archived from the original on 5 August 2009. Retrieved 4 August 2009.
  15. ^ "Use this image". Archived from the original on 25 August 2013. Retrieved 14 December 2013.
  16. ^ "NPG changes image licensing to allow free downloads". 22 August 2012. Archived from the original on 16 December 2013. Retrieved 14 December 2013.
  17. ^ a b Atkinson, Rebecca (22 August 2012). "NPG changes image licensing to allow free downloads". Museums Journal. Archived from the original on 16 December 2013. Retrieved 21 May 2013.
  18. ^ "Copyright Notice: digital images, photographs and the internet". UK IPO. Archived from the original on 7 January 2021. Retrieved 12 December 2015.
  19. ^ "Use this Image". National Portrait Gallery. Archived from the original on 19 January 2024. Retrieved 19 January 2024.
  20. ^ Wikimedia Volunteers (3 December 2018). "File:Charles Robert Darwin by John Collier.jpg". Wikimedia Foundation. Archived from the original on 19 January 2024. Retrieved 19 January 2024.
  21. ^ Wallace, Andrea (23 February 2022). "A Culture of Copyright: A scoping study on open access to digital cultural heritage collections in the UK". doi:10.5281/zenodo.6242611. Archived from the original on 25 March 2022. Retrieved 24 March 2022. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  22. ^ Lord Justice Arnold (20 November 2023), THJ v Sheridan (PDF), Court of Appeal, Wikidata Q124044396
  23. ^ Bendor Grosvenor (29 December 2023). "Court of Appeal ruling will prevent UK museums from charging reproduction fees—at last". The Art Newspaper. ISSN 0960-6556. Wikidata Q124044230.

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