The whole NPG / Wikimedia thing

There’s acres and acres of stuff to read and write about the whole National Portrait Gallery legal action threat against Wikimedia contributor Dcoetzee and his addition to the Wikimedia collection. I’m not going to try and add to the noise too much but it would seem apposite to at least comment given my current thread of presentations and posts is all about freedom, openness and MRD.

As always (just like the argument currently brewing about Free), there are two possible dangers in any debate like this. First, we go into too much detail and lose the view of the house because we’re examining the bricks too closely. Second, we polarise the debate.

I’m good at polarising, being a bear of simple brain – particularly when it comes to copyright. Simply, I don’t think it works in many cases, and I think this particular example holds – on many levels – great reasons as to why not. Cross-country, cross-domain, cross-sector, hidden images, non-hidden images, etc etc. This level of complexity doesn’t hold well with users, and they will abuse, either knowingly or unknowingly.

Having said that, there are clearly two sides to this particular debate, and actually I think both sides are being pretty reasonable. NPG have offered medium sized pictures; Wikimedia has been on the case for some years seeking access to these (arguably) public domain images. The discussion over the detail in this particular case will ramble on; the legal threat will be sorted out of court; everyone will ultimately go away at least semi-happy.

The bigger picture is the more important question, and it is this: why are cultural institutions putting collection (images) online? I ask this as an open question, as un-loaded as it can be (given you probably know where I’m coming from on this).

The possible answers are these (none is mutually exclusive, by the way):

  • to sell them / variations of them, such as prints, etc
  • to increase exposure to them
  • to increase exposure to the holding institution
  • to increase ticket sales / physical visits to the holding institution

So with these in mind, I think the important questions in this particular debate are not about the devil detail of cross-country copyright or whether Dcoetzee “should” have done what he did. I think they are:

  • does the exposure on Wikimedia increase exposure? (Answer: yes)
  • does exposure of hi-res pictures stop people from buying them (Answer: unknown, but possibly not)
  • does the exposure of the images improve the standing of the institution (as being a place that “has a great collection”) ? (Answer: yes)
  • does the exposure of the images increase click-through to the NPG website (and hence, assuming at least some kind of connection between traffic and physical visits) ? (Answer: unknown – I’m about to submit a FOI request to see if we can find out, but probably yes)
  • does the threat of legal action make NPG look good? (Answer: not really)

There’s some great questions here, which I’ve been asking our sector to answer for a while. Where is value in a networked age? How does virtual equate to physical? Does exposure increase or decrease physical sales (go ask Anderson or Gladwell this one…).

Just as a closing thought, I wonder if the NPG will be chasing Yahoo! for this YQL query or Google Images for this one? I suspect not.