August 07, 2003
Digital Photos on the Internet Ripe for Copyright Infringement

Digital copyright owners of fine arts are at risk of the theft of their works by crackers who strip the watermarks from the images, as reported by in Piracy warning over digitised fine art.

A scheme to digitise (sic) famous paintings that was unveiled last week by the National Gallery in London, UK, may be placing the collection at risk of digital piracy.... The National Gallery has been working with computer giant Hewlett-Packard for eight years on a scheme to digitise all of its 2300 paintings. The images have been captured with a digital camera that steps backwards and forwards over the painting, a technique that improves the resolution of the image to 100 megapixels, 20 times that of the best consumer cameras.

Huw Robson, manager of HP's Digital Media Systems Laboratory, says the digitised images and hard-copy prints will not be protected by digital watermarks. If a file is hacked or a high-quality print scanned and copied, the gallery will be unable to prove the source.

Owning the copyright to digital images will give the gallery some protection under the law. But it will not be easy to enforce, if the music industry's attempts to tackle piracy are anything to go by.

I would imagine that the fine arts image black market is considerably smaller than say, the music industry's problem with file sharing, but after the National Gallery in London has spent time and money in a complicated process of digitizing it's works, one can understand their apprehension over the anticipated cracking of their image watermarks. One the otherhand, the works are in a museum which, if it were in the US, would be a 501c3, meaning it would be supported by donors receiving tax deductions. Because of that, taxpayers would in essence be supporting the institution, and therefore, it would seem more fair to distribute the images more freely as everyone would have a stake in the copyright ownership of the works because of this support. However, I'm not familiar with UK tax law, have no idea how the National Gallery is funded, by donations, taxes or other government underwriting, and so don't really know what is morally right on these terms. Although I do realize the National Gallery alone technically has the right to control the digital images because of their ownership of the works.

On the other hand, museums such as the National Gallery will theoretically make some money from the sale of these images as high quality posters and so I wonder if when the digital images do get out, whether the free distribution will have the effect of promoting their museum and works which is, I think, the ultimate and primary goal of a museum, to share their work directly with the public, along with preserving it for future sharing and study. Therefore, would it make sense for the National Gallery to license the printing through their own and other's print shops for the printing of large posters, while still allowing internet users to discover the artwork via free images that they would most likely not print out as posters because most users don't have sophisticated large format printers at home?

I do realize unscrupulous print shops might print and sell illicit images but how much of a problem this is would seem to be relatively small and something that museum lawyers probably already deal with somewhat now.

Last month, JD Lasica pointed to another digital image copyright story about Corbis invoking the DMCA, suing Amazon and 15 others "for allegedly selling unauthorized copies of hundreds of images." Amazon, at the time, said they would remove the images for sale immediately, and the article addressed responsibility of sites like Amazon and Ebay for keeping users of their services from violating the law. Ebay was released from liability in a similar case in 2001, but Amazon may not be so lucky now because they are more directly involved in the sale process of the copyright protected celebrity images.

Posted by Mary Hodder at August 07, 2003 09:31 AM | TrackBack

The Bridgeman v. Corel case, as well as the Hyperlaw case, suggest that faithful, two-dimensional digital reproductions of two-dimensional public-domain works have no independently copyrightable components.

Viewed in this light, the digital reproductions of masterpieces are not "ripe for infringement", they are ripe for widespread distribution, which contributes to the "progress of science".

Posted by: Timothy Phillips on August 8, 2003 07:41 AM
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