In her coronation robes, Elizabeth I looks formidable and stately – the Virgin Queen in her pomp, an image to propel rivals into battle. Some 400 years after her portrait was painted, that is precisely what she has done.
Hers is one of more than 3,000 images from the National Portrait Gallery uploaded onto the free internet encyclopedia Wikipedia in April by Seattle-based Derrick Coetzee. The gallery, founded in 1856, responded last week by threatening legal proceedings against the PhD student.
That action unleashed outrage in cyberspace and quickly led to a stand-off between the proponents of free information and cultural institutions wanting to protect one of their few revenue streams – licence fees for reproducing images of their artworks. The row also goes to the heart of an internet revolution which does not recognise borders or national laws.
The gallery has instructed the law firm Farrer and Co, which represents the Queen, to sue Mr Coetzee unless the pictures are removed. They claim that letters to Wikipedia were unanswered. While the portraits are long out of copyright, the photographs are not and, the gallery argues, the digitisation process to create high resolution images has cost it around £1m. They are, they say, therefore entitled to a licence fee.
Wikipedia, which is supporting Mr Coetzee, argues that the portraits are owned by the public. Moreover, they work with many global cultural institutions which are glad to have their images widely disseminated. A further complication is that Mr Coetzee is a US citizen based in America, where copyright laws around images of publicly owned art are different. The gallery points out that Wikipedia's servers are based in the UK and come under the jurisdiction of a UK court.
But Alison Wheeler, an editor and administrator for Wikipedia in the UK, said the Inland Revenue takes the opposite view. "It's a very significant case, and very complicated," she said. "It gets to the heart of the internet. The Inland Revenue argues that if you buy something online, it doesn't matter where the server is located, you still pay tax. So the gallery wants it both ways.
"My view is that our taxes have paid for these, but you can't see them unless you live in London. People have a right to see them. I think the gallery has taken advice from other institutions and decided now is the time to act and settle this matter once and for all. There is no doubt they are taking it seriously."
Yesterday the leading art critic Brian Sewell waded into the row, calling the gallery managers fools. He added: "The National Portrait Gallery has always been managed by fools and this is another example of their folly. I'm on Wikipedia's side. The only thing the gallery has to preserve are the pictures themselves. The images must, in some sense, be public property already."
Media lawyer Duncan Lamont, of Charles Russell solicitors, disagreed. "This is the arrogance of new technology which thinks it can trample over rights and say, 'I'll have this for free'," he said. "Copyright law is very clear. If somebody has taken a great deal of effort to get the lighting right to produce the best picture possible then they should be protected."
Mr Coetzee said he could not comment, as he is being represented by the internet freedom campaign group Electronic Frontier Foundation. The group could not be contacted yesterday.
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