Art Isn’t Free: The Tragedy of the Wikimedia Commons

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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.”

For the sake of argument, let’s grant that the images Coetzee posted on the Wikimedia Commons are in the public domain (as they would be if they’d come from the UK gallery’s U.S. counterpart, the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution). That still doesn’t give Coetzee or the Wikimedia Foundation the moral authority to copy and reproduce them at full resolution. In believing that they do have this authority, they are likely falling into the Wikipedia mode of economic thinking.

Wikipedia works as a free global encyclopedia because it has found a way around the “free rider” problem. That’s an economic situation in which the majority of users pay nothing and consume far more than their fair share of a resource, while a minority do all the work and feel insufficently rewarded. As Chris Anderson observes in his new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, there is no free rider crisis on Wikipedia—in fact, the more free riders, the better. That’s because exposure to the huge audience that Wikipedia provides is itself the reward for the small fraction of its users who are willing to write and edit articles for no pay.

But high-resolution photos of museum portraits are not like Wikipedia articles. They may lack originality, but the photographers and the institutions who make them can’t afford to do so for free, and the exposure that free distribution brings is not sufficient compensation. (At least, it hasn’t been sufficient in the past. I think there’s a case to be made that museums should be doing more to explore how giving away high-resolution digital art might actually help them increase revenues in other ways. But that’s a topic for another column.)

By publishing thousands of National Portrait Gallery images on the Wikimedia Commons, Coetzee has made all of us into free riders, with zero reward flowing to the gallery. I’m sure that he loves art and is committed to supporting the free exchange of ideas, which ultimately leads to more art. And I’m sure that many users of the Wikimedia Commons will find the images he’s uploaded enlightening. But there needs to be some way for the National Portrait Gallery to benefit from digitization and online sharing, or the result could be the very opposite of free exchange.

Museum curators don’t want to be seen as the high priests of art, jealously guarding access to their relics. They really want people to see, enjoy, and learn from the art under their care. But one has to assume that after a few more episodes of piracy, museum directors will either have to slap much stricter digital-rights management systems their online archives, or start facing harsh questions from their boards about why they’re spending so much money on digitization.

In the end, the shared cultural riches that all museum visitors draw upon might have to be put behind thicker walls. They call that the tragedy of the commons, and it would be a shame to see it affect such an important resource.

Addendum: After I finished this essay on Thursday, I discovered that Erik Moeller, the deputy director of the Wikimedia Foundation, had just published a blog post critical of the National Portrait Gallery’s legal threats.

An excerpt: “The Wikimedia Foundation sympathizes with cultural institutions’ desire for revenue streams to help them maintain services for their audiences. And yet, if that revenue stream requires an institution to lock up and severely limit access to its educational materials, rather than allowing the materials to be freely available to everyone, that strikes us as counter to those institutions’ educational mission. It is hard to see a plausible argument that excluding public domain content from a free, non-profit encyclopedia serves any public interest whatsoever.”

In my view, Moeller’s logic is somewhat backward. It’s clearly in the public interest for museums to exist and to digitize their works. There would be no threat to the revenue streams they earn from these digital materials—and therefore no need to lock them up—if those who wished to reproduce the material observed common-sense limits, or were willing to work with the museums to find some way for all parties to benefit.

As far as the Coetzee case itself, Moeller writes: “The Wikimedia Foundation has no reason to believe that the user in question has violated any applicable law, and we are exploring ways to support the user in the event that NPG follows up on its original threat. We are open to a compromise around the specific images, but our position on the legal status of these images is unlikely to change.”

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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