The Britsh Museum is chock full of fascinating artefacts, even if the sourcing of some of those artefacts means their ownership of them is disputed. While that sourcing happened in different times perhaps (which doesn’t mean our current perspective can’t be different), in these times echoes of that can be heard in the form of digital appropriation.

Earlier this week the British Museum announced they had revamped their website. Part of the revamp is providing more and better digital images of artefacts. Digitising artefacts well is a lot of work and effort, and making them available to the public is very laudable. Especially as the British Museum says, since we’re now only capable of visiting from home.

Director Hartwig Fischer in the museum’s communication is quoted saying

We hope that these important objects can provide inspiration, reflection or even just quiet moments of distraction during this difficult time

Inspiration, cool. Let’s do. Jason Kottke wrote about it and posted some beautiful images.
I went to the BM’s site as well and browsed. Then I came across this artefact:

Screenshot of the British Museum showing a 1725 etching, with copyright claim

I didn’t know the British Museum had a print of the water gates in my hometown!

Then I noticed an oddity: a ‘(c) Trustees of the British Museum’ statement on it. I have the image (remixed with a Mondriaan painting, by E after my idea) on my wall. This as the etching by A. Rademaker is also in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, and they too have digitised their collection and made it available. At the Rijksmuseum that image however is public domain.

The British Museum also allows downloading images. For ‘my’ image at least that download is of distinctly lower resolution than the Rijksmuseum download (the BM’s download is 365Kb, the Rijks’ 2.8MB). Here you see them side by side, BM on the left, Rijks on the right.

‘high-ish’ res BM image on the left, higher res Rijks image on the right

Moving on from inspiration to reflection then, as per the director’s words: What’s up with that copyright claim? The etching itself, being from the 18th century, is clearly in the public domain. Are they saying making a photo of an artefact is creating a new copyright? As Cory Doctorow also noted, that is a wild claim to make. Making a photo of an artefact to show just that artefact is not considered a creative act, and thus not protected under copyright rules, in the UK (PDF) and the EU.

The actual licensing terms attached by the British Museum to a downloaded image are Creative Commons BY NC SA, meaning only non-commercial use is allowed, if the results are shared under the same conditions and the British Museum is mentioned as the source. This is not an open license. It means that Jason Kottke who, inspired as hoped by the BM’s director, put images on his site is in breach of this license, as he also sollicits membership payments through his blog. Appropriate would be a CC0 license, or public domain mark. Claiming copyright on an image that actually is in the public domain because its subject matter is in the public domain on the other hand is digital appropriation.

A second question is why would the British Museum do this? A clue is the information shown when you want to download an image:

BM allows download for non-commercial use, but for commercial use requires a request

The distinction between commercial and non-commercial forms of use, I suspect, may have something to do with the effort of digitisation. Digitisation is generally very costly. Museums fall under the EU PSI Directive on the re-use of public information. In that Directive a possibility exists to temporarily make the exploitation of digitised material exclusive to a certain party as reward for help with the digitisation. Under this exemption tech companies can enter into agreements with museums and libraries to digitise their collections and have a handful of years before the results become generally available to the public. The fact that the BM publishes some images for the general public, at lower quality, is another potential clue. It’s my speculation, but it may mean that the BM tries to provide at least some publicly available material, while the exclusive exploitation rights for whoever is paying for the digitisation still exist. In other countries we’ve seen that material isn’t published until those rights expire, and it would indeed be a useful step to find a way of providing at least some access.

However, none of that has any relation to copyright, as the digitisation itself does not create new rights to license. It would I think better be solved by providing lower quality material as public domain material, while higher quality material is made available as part of the exclusive exploitation deal. If this is what is happening, again it’s just my assumption, using a restrictive CC license is the wrong instrument. If it has nothing to do with the digitisation process and surrounding contracts, but only to create revenue for the museum, then using Creative Commons licenses to do so is just plain wrong and digital appropriation that should be corrected.