richardtech (richardtech) wrote,

Copyright on reproductions of old images

Slashdot, which I still occasionally read, has drawn my attention to a recent "manifesto" launched by the British library at the Labour Party conference last week, on the subject of Intellectual Property. This makes a number of positive statements about IP in the context of digital communications and modern technology, and will hopefully be part of a debate resulting in the preservation of our ability to effectively share and create new works, both commercially and non-commercially.

However, what I'd really like to see institutions such as the British Library and public museums changing is their policy on reproductions of out-of-copyright images. Currently, they claim copyright on reproductions of such images (ie, they claim that the act of scanning an old painting is a creative work, and that the photograph is protected by copyright, even if the original painting is long out of copyright). They then use this copyright claim to place extortionate costs on publication of images of their collection.

This is somewhat suspect legally, but who has the lawyers to challenge them? Only creative works are meant to be covered by copyright. Where's the creative act in putting a painting into a reproduction system and pressing a button? The National Gallery even prides itself on how accurate a reproduction the copied images you can purchase from their website are, showing that there's no creative step here.

For example, according to this document on the British Library's website it would cost me 102 pounds to buy a license to put a copy of a single one of their digital images on a website for 6 months, even if that website were a non-commercial website supplying, say, educational resources and lesson plan ideas for schools. The digital image they've made should not be covered by copyright, and should be able to be used without restriction. (It would be fair enough to charge a small fee to go towards the initial bandwidth cost and scanning cost, but don't forget that this is a public organisation which should be using some of its funding from the tax payers to allow all British citizens, including those who don't happen to live in London, as much access to their collection as possible.) Once you have a copy (digital or otherwise) of an out-of-copyright painting, you should be able to do whatever you like with it.

While I welcome the copyright statement the British Library has made here, it should stop trying to abuse copyright in this manner before we salute it as a guardian of our rights, as the slashdot article seems to.
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