Editor's note: rather than a typical Signpost news article, which should eschew taking sides in matters of opinion within the community, this is an open letter expressing the opinion of its authors on how the Wikimedia community ought to interact with cultural institutions like galleries, libraries, archives, and museums.
Recently the National Portrait Gallery in London issued a legal threat against an administrator from Wikimedia Commons. This has attracted attention from free culture enthusiasts; the threat was discussed on the front page of Slashdot this week. The matter probably also has the attention of other museums and archives that hold similar collections. On one level the threat is an issue of differing interpretations of copyright law. The two groups each have strong reasons for holding differing views: one believes unsupportable copyright claims are hampering access to valuable information, the other has traditionally depended on sales of reproduction copies to help cover the costs of curating its physical collections of historic artworks. Free culture and curation also have the potential for cooperation, though, since both share a goal of providing information to the public. In other words, when the talk is about partnering, about sharing values, about bringing our cultural heritage to our shared public, we may be able to move forward together.
As a legal matter, many of the claims currently erected by archives and institutions are untested. Some individuals on both sides would like to see the matter play out in court. An international network of Wikimedia volunteers, represented on the English Wikipedia by projects such as Wikipedia Loves Art and WikiProject Media Restoration, and in Australia with the Backstage Pass and the upcoming "GLAM-WIKI: Finding the common ground" event, have been working toward a cooperative approach with museums and archives. By earning the institutions' trust and developing ways to make greater openness workable for these institutions, this network of volunteers aims to create an environment where the institutions dismantle their own defensive legal claims.
Part of the challenge is to understand the institutions' needs. Even the ones that receive heavy subsidies also remain dependent upon image reproduction sales. For the National Portrait Gallery, its picture library income for TY2007–08 was £378,000. From the perspective of the institutions, that goes toward paying for secure storage and temperature controls and other necessities to preserve their collections for future generations, and for the specialist staff necessary to ensure the maintenance and development of the collections. Digitization and the Internet are changing those economics. One way for institutions to respond is defensive: they are not under obligation to scan material or upload digital files on the Internet, and can charge service fees for doing so. Even when they do, the majority of archival material at most of these institutions remains undigitized and often uncatalogued. In the long run, the most effective way of gaining access to archival material will probably be by gaining the trust of these institutions and by showing them ways that openness is workable for them.
One example is the German Federal Archives, which donated 100,000 medium resolution images to Wikimedia Commons in December 2008. Much of its collection is under copyright, uncontroversially, so Bundesarchiv relicensed the medium resolution versions under CC-by-sa 3.0 license while it retained full copyright over the higher resolution originals. Since that donation its sales of high resolution images have increased significantly. Each image hosting page contains a link back to the Bundesarchiv as a source, so people who have an interest in higher resolution material have gone to Bundesarchiv to purchase copies. Also, the Commons community have been submitting improvements to the Bundesarchiv's metadata which get imported back into their catalogue. The result is a mutually beneficial relationship.
Another way to build relationships is to restore slightly damaged material. The following example is a restoration of an artwork that ran on the cover of Life magazine in January 1910. The scan was made directly from the artist's original.
The unrestored version has no resale value due to stain damage, but the restored version is suitable for posters, mouse pads, etc. The Wikimedia community has a growing team of volunteer restorationists who donate high quality services in order to motivate institutions to open their collections to the public. If a restored image gets selected as a featured picture, as this one has, it eventually runs on Wikipedia's main page. That gains additional attention for the donating institution and its collection. By restoring selected showpiece examples, Wikimedians motivate institutions to make large donations to Wikimedia Commons.
These are two of several approaches that Wikimedia volunteers have been employing to open greater access to media content. Without acting in ways that would validate disputed rights claims, these volunteers seek solutions that give the institutions reasons to dismantle the barriers themselves. Wikimedia Commons is not the only organization that seeks these donations. Flickr, a commercial website, has a paid staff that is seeking the same material. As Noam Cohen of The New York Times noted earlier this year, Flickr and Commons are competing for similar donations. Each site brings a different set of advantages to the table. In theory, it makes sense for one nonprofit institution to build a relationship with another nonprofit in preference to a commercial website. In practice, the outcome may depend upon whether Wikimedians adopt a cooperative or a confrontational approach. Possibly within the next year, either Flickr or Commons will gain enough momentum to become the dominant venue for archival image donations.
In the broader picture, openness increases the possibilities of new discoveries arising from better communication. Earlier this year the Signpostreported on a Wikimedia volunteer's restoration that prompted the Library of Congress to update its records when the restoration revealed previously unrecognized human remains in a photograph of the Wounded Knee Massacre aftermath. Not long afterward, a restoration of the landmarkedHotel Del Coronado of Coronado, California pieced together a panorama by noted photographer William Henry Jackson that had been forgotten in archival collections and was unknown to the hotel's own staff. A Library of Congress librarian wrote about the Wounded Knee discovery, "You can imagine that among a collection of 14 million items here, there are a lot of secrets waiting to be uncovered!"