When it comes to copyright, public domain usually doesn't leave much room for argument: once a piece of art enters public domain, more people have access to its use.
However, a German museum argues that photographs of public domain artworks don't fall under public domain license, because the photographs themselves fall under normal copyright law.
The Reiss Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim, Germany, recently served a lawsuit against Wikimedia over some photographs that appeared on the site of several public domain works of art. According to Wikimedia, the museum claims that those 17 images don't actually fall under public domain at all, but should receive certain copyright protections.
The museum argues that the photographs themselves are new creations, taken by a photographer hired by it who spent new time and effort on those images. Therefore, the museum asserts that the images themselves do not fall under public domain.
As expected, Wikimedia asserts that it has every right to use the images of the works of art on its website.
"The Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia Deutschland believe that the Reiss Engelhorn Museum's views are mistaken," writes the organization on its blog. "Copyright law should not be misused to attempt to control the dissemination of works of art that have long been in the public domain, such as the paintings housed in the Reiss Engelhorn Museum. The intent of copyright is to reward creativity and originality, not to create new rights limiting the online sharing of images of public domain works."
Wikimedia also points out that many other museums and cultural institutions uphold public domain and the rights of websites like Wikimedia to host images of works of art online. Other similar organizations have gone so far as to make their entire collections available for the world to enjoy on the Internet.
The GLAM-Wiki initiative is a partnership between museums and Wikimedia to share their resources with the world via the Internet. Wikimedia believes that the Reiss Engelhorn Museum is not just in the wrong here, but also inhibiting the kind of valuable efforts that seek to make art easily accessible to the masses.
"These cultural institutions are upholding the values of the public domain and protecting the right to take part in our cultural heritage," writes Wikimedia. "The Reiss Engelhorn Museum's attempt to create new copyright in public domain works goes against European principles on the public domain."