We have a project brewing here to create an image database for the Art School. Logically this project needs to eventually scale to other departments as well. Apart from the technicalities of meta data, resources such as storage, and sustainability such as who maintains and backs it up – as always, copyright is a problem. The Art School has thousands of slides they want to scan in and make available to their staff and students digitally, and questions arise on the effects a closed or open database would have on the copyrights of third party (stuff we don’t own).

Funnily enough, it seems to me that the solution to the problem is not to create our own image data base, but to use an already existing database such as Wikimedia Commons. Apparently up to half of the images that we might need to use in the Art School are already available on Wikimedia Commons, including some images that are copyrighted, and the InstantCommons project looks set to increase that number of resources like images. Interestingly it seems that Wikimedia Commons is accepting copyrighted works under USA legislation of Fair Use – which from what I can tell is a bit easier to use educationally than our own legislation here in NZ.

Based on a statement included with a copyrighted image on Wikipedia, perhaps it is felt that if the copy is low enough in resolution to not warrant a faithfully replicable copy, or if a copy that could not effectively reproduce in original scale and in detail, or a copy that could not be used commercially to any great degree, is potentially OK to exist on a Wikimedia project based on the US’ fair use. Interesting example based on a low rez copy of a Clyford Still painting

Also of interest is the Bridgeman vs Corel which a staff member on our image database project has pointed to. In this case, a court has found in favour of a corporation that made copys of a museum’s images of Public Domain works. The Museum claimed that they had put a lot of work into their scans to ensure acuracy, but that claim worked against them because their scans therefore lacked originality and so they couldn’t claim copyright… how would this play out in NZ we wonder? Does it need to play out in NZ if the image is hosted on Wikimedia Commons? Could this extend to copyrighted images we wonder…

I called my mate Stewart Cheifet at archive.org for his take on it all, and through a bit of discussion put it down to this, low resolution, not making money (or fair use), all reasonable steps, no worries [my wording]. I like the refreshing clarity. I would worry more if we had our own database to maintain, but perhaps Wikimedia commons is more clearly these fair use things and so we have a better bet there…

So, what of our image database project? I reckon we should work towards the bigger projects like Wikimedia Commons and help improve that open and very usable database. We should be able to load high rez jpg to the commons for works that we have copyright clearance for – we may even find that a large percentage of the images that we need are already there! As for images that we don’t have clearance on, it seems that being an educational institution we can claim fair use under US law if we load low rez versions and details, the question is do we fall under US or NZ law if we use US services? [I think it is US law regardless – they do after all have the bigger guns and trade “agreements”]. Seeing as we only intend to use these images in research and learning – we probably don’t have a lot of need for high rez images – especially if we include detail images for close ups and the like when we need them (instead of high rez full works). Wikimedia Commons uses a MediaWiki platform which has an excellent range of metadata fields not to mention a proven ability to maintain itself through collaborative editing. Use of Wikimedia Commons dramatically reduces our costs of installing, running and maintaining our own system. Does this stack up?

Of course we would still need to set up a basic internal system for original scans etc. Like a library back up in case we lose access to Wikimedia Commons. Hopefully we would also use a MediaWiki internally so as to remain compatible with the likes of the Commons. But we should ensure flexibility in what database we primarily use, we might want to use Archive.org later down the track if they get a good image database engine up and running, and so the openness of the commons gives us a fair amount of that flexibility for the meantime.

So as always it seems to make more sense to work in with existing projects rather than “reinvent the wheel” as the saying goes. Trouble is that in education, that saying seems to only extend as far as what your neighbour department is doing and not to a more national or even global scale… building our own is reinventing the wheel I reckon.