Why is a museum suing Wikipedia for sharing?

Portrait of Richard Wagner
digitisation of public domain works doesn't create new rights
Licentie

Above is the Portrait of Richard Wagner by Cäsar Willich, one of the contested images.

Yesterday the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia Deutschland announced that they’re fighting a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by the Reiss Engelhorn Museum. The German museum is suing Wikimedia for publishing digital reproductions of public domain artworks from its collection on Wikipedia. The physical works of art housed in the museum are clearly in the public domain, but German copyright law might apply to photographic reproductions of those works. According to Wikimedia,

The Reiss Engelhorn Museum asserts that copyright applies to these particular images because the museum hired the photographer who took some of them and it took him time, skill, and effort to take the photos. The Reiss Engelhorn Museum further asserts that because of their copyrights, the images of the artwork cannot be shared with the world through Wikimedia Commons.

Wikimedia aligned its goals with those of many cultural heritage institutions, and restated their community’s ongoing commitment to increasing the accessibility and reuse of creative content in the commons. The foundation and Wikimedia Deutschland disagreed with the views of the museum, saying that “Copyright law should not be misused to attempt to control the dissemination of works of art that have long been in the public domain…[t]he intent of copyright is to reward creativity and originality, not to create new rights limiting the online sharing of images of public domain works.”

We agree with Wikimedia that it’s inappropriate to use copyright law to lock down photography of works in the public domain. Communia has long held that “Digital reproductions of works that are in the Public Domain must also belong to the Public Domain. Use of works in the public domain should not be limited by any means, either legal or technical.” Julia Reda’s copyright report—adopted by the European Parliament in July 2015—also specifically calls on the Commission “to clarify that once a work is in the public domain, any digitisation of the work which does not constitute a new, transformative work, stays in the public domain.”

The Reiss Engelhorn Museum should drop its copyright infringement lawsuit against the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia Deutschland. In addition, they might take a look at how other European cultural heritage institutions like the Rijksmuseum are experimenting with digitisation and access projects in which they are sharing the highest quality possible images of public domain artworks held by the museum—for free and without legal restriction. They are doing so not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also to showcase the best of the museum’s collection as a promotional tool. The Rijksmuseum also realized that by releasing high quality digital reproductions of works out of copyright, it could help educate the public by providing true-color images and accurate metadata about the works.