Wikimedia France proposals for content scope

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Subject: [Commons-l] a heads-up on Wikimedia France's adventures with the French cultural authorities
Date: Tue, 22 Sep 2009 18:51:12 +0200
From: David Monniaux
To: commons-l@lists.wikimedia.org

Since its foundation, the French chapter has attempted to reach out to French cultural institutions, such as museums, and incite them to either put their images under free licenses, either allow photographers that contribute freely licensed pictures to take photographs in good conditions.

At first, to be frank, we got the cold shoulder. At the time, Wikipedia was demonized by the French media, calling it a cesspool of amateurism, plagiarism, a danger to the youth's intellect, and so on. In addition, certain members of the cultural establishment were at the time attacking Google and other big American sites, pushing their own solutions.

Things might be changing though. In 2008, I represented Wikimedia France before a commission tasked with proposing new policies to the Minister of Culture regarding the reuse of public cultural works. The Ministry of Culture is in charge of most national museums and monuments (e.g. the Louvre, the Versailles Castle...) and its agencies have large collections of photographs - but these are copyrighted by the agencies and available under unfree licenses.

Our position was as follows: unfree licenses may in the short term allow cash-strapped government agencies to earn some money from selling photographs to publishers, but in the long run they are counter-productive, because media, publishers and important sites such as Wikipedia, worldwide, prefer free and easy to obtain photographs to photographs that they need to purchase from unfamiliar foreign institutions, and thus French cultural institutions would lose visibility.

We gave the example of aerospace activities on Wikipedia, which are overwhelmingly illustrated by US government pictures, which somehow convey the impression that countries outside the US do nothing in this field. We pointed out that museums such as the Smithsonian Institution were putting up content on FlickR, and that it was inevitable that publishers and other people that want an illustration from an artist would prefer getting one from FlickR rather than ordering one from the French museums. In contrast, if French museums would release pictures under a free license, they would get free publicity - imagine what it would cost them if they wanted to advertise their exhibitions on Wikipedia (if Wikipedia accepted advertisements), whereas they can get publicity for free simply by the attribution of the photographs!

Note that it is not out of ill will that museums and other institutions refuse to release pictures under a free license. There are some legal difficulties involved - sometimes they do not own the rights to the pictures (only in 2006 it was established for sure that rights to works done by civil servants as part of their duties belonged to their employer; also, they sometimes employ private photographers), and besides, there are tricky issues with so-called "moral rights" that may render certain aspects of free content licenses illegal in France. Also, public institutions are pressured to make some money by themselves.

I had written a memo, which I gave to the commission. http://david.monniaux.free.fr/pdf/Wikimedia_France_Monniaux_oeuvres_publiques.pdf

This August, I received the report from the commission, with an associated letter from the Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterrand, stating that he endorsed the findings in the report. This report advocates many changes that we approve:

  • stop trying to make insignificant sums of money - instead release as free
  • cut the red tape - authorizations for reuse of content should be

centralized to competent, professional services, rather than be decentralized to many institutions most of whom do not have the technical, legal and financial infrastructure to deal with them

  • collaborate with free content sites such as Wikipedia - more on this.

http://david.monniaux.free.fr/pdf/rapport_culture.pdf (scanned version) http://david.monniaux.free.fr/pdf/rapport_culture_ocr.pdf (OCR version)

The cultural services are reluctant to release pictures under free licenses. When I met them, they expected that it would be possible to "negotiate" with Wikipedia and get an exemption from this requirement. I explained to them that freedom was not negotiable. It was, I think, very surprising to them that Wikipedia, an amateurish organization, would dare say that to the Government!

I proposed a way out: release lower resolution pictures under free license, keep high resolution pictures (those suitable for art books, posters and so on) proprietary. The suggestion has been retained by the commission - even though they still seem to toy with this idea of "negotiation".

In the meantime, the National Library of France (www.bnf.fr) announced it was entering negotiations with Google for digitizing their content. This would announce a sharp change in policies since when Jean-Noël Jeanneney was head of the library - Jeanneney had written a book denouncing Google's hold on the world.

I seized the occasion to make our point of view heard. On Wednesday September 16, I published in op-ed column in the national daily Libération, explaining that our cultural policies on were counterproductive - rather than fight the "American cultural invasion" as their proponents suggest, they actually reinforce this invasion by making French content invisible on the Web - because it is kept proprietary.

*** This is, I think, the first time such ideas were exposed in the mainstream media. ***

Since the report called for renewed contacts between the Ministry and free content sites, I wrote to them thanking the Minister for sending the report and telling them that we are at his disposal for further discussion with his services.

We are trying to keep up the "buzz" on these issues - see the Heritage Day email.

Just to avoid misconceptions:

I do not expect that anything will change soon in the policies of French cultural institutions. It is extremely difficult to change the policies of large, traditional organizations unless there is a strong political will to do so - and I do not think that putting up free content online is a national priority.

My foremost goal is to get the ideas of free content and free access across, to the common public and to the people in charge.

This is not so easy, because there are many misconceptions about what Wikipedia is about. For instance, contrary to what is often implied by the media, Wikipedia is not a free-for-all where anybody can do anything anytime - but many people believe it and thus are horrified by such a pandemonium, and because of this, they simply won't listen to what we say. Simply overcoming such misinformation is already considerable work. It took us years to be considered respectable enough to be heard by officials, and to get a short op-ed printed in the press. This means that in the meantime, myself and others (Florence Devouard, Pierre Beaudouin, and so on) had to go to many meetings, whose outcome many often just have been that people that did not know us would then see that we are not dangerous anarchist teenagers or raving idealists, but sensible, responsible folks.