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(Associated Press)

London’s National Portrait Gallery reported a heist last month, accusing Derrick Coetzee of making off with over 3,000 works in the museum’s collection. A volunteer contributor to the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, Mr. Coetzee downloaded images of venerable paintings from the Portrait Gallery’s Web site and put copies in a Wikipedia collection of art. The museum’s lawyers fired off a letter accusing Wikipedia of violating copyright and contracts; Mr. Coetzee’s lawyer responded there can be no prohibition on copying works that are in the public domain.

It’s not hard to understand the museum’s frustration. It goes to all the trouble and expense of making accurate photographic copies—getting the lighting just so, ensuring the magentas are distinguishable from the scarlets and crimsons—and then someone comes along with a few clicks of a mouse and appropriates thousands of images. One rightly chafes at the techie assumption that anything you can get your digital mitts on is free game. But no better is the opposite extreme, the effort to seize public property and put it under monopoly control.

Copyright law tries to balance two social goods, providing private ownership of intellectual property to reward creativity while eventually making creative works as widely accessible as possible by letting the copyright lapse decades after the work’s author is dead. If new copyrights can be attached to old works of art, the whole copyright system is thrown out of whack.

Any litigation over the Portrait Gallery’s complaint could turn on a simple jurisdictional question. Mr. Coetzee did his downloading in the U.S. The museum’s claims are based on its interpretation of U.K. law, which allows more restrictive enforcement of copyrights.

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Eric Felton
Wall Street Journal

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