Solicitors for the National Portrait Gallery are apparently threatening legal action against a US Wikipedia user for downloading 3,300 digital photographs of paintings in the UK museum's collection, and then uploading them to Wikipedia. Says Londonist:
All of the paintings are thought to be from the Victorian era or earlier, and are therefore in the public domain. The rather gristly bone of contention, however, is whether the high resolution images of those paintings are protected by their own copyright.Seems that the NPG is claiming both copyright infringement for its photographs and database right infringement. Neither of these rights currently exist under US copyright law.
Obviously, I've been thinking quite a bit latelyabout the issues around reproducing artwork and the incipient loss/cost/penalty when art is transmitted in a copyright culture. It was always my understanding that museums which hold public domain works--which is the vast amount of material in museums, basically everything over 95 years old--tried to control reproduction of the work by limiting access to the work itself, or by requiring contracts for shooting work, or for using authorized reproductions. [Monticello, for example, has an insane, draconian, and expensive shooting policy that practically requires you to hire a gardener to follow behind and refluff the grass where your tripod had been standing.]
According to the NPG's solicitors, at least, US and UK laws differ on whether a photograph of an artwork has a copyright in itself, something distinct from the artwork being depicted. Should be interesting.