Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Wikimedia and the Tower of London poppies

It can't be easy trying to maintain the high standards on Wikimedia Commons. (This is the place where people can upload their own photographs for future use on Wikipedia and elsewhere, and where all content needs to be freely released for personal and commercial use. But it's also where copyright ownership and the laws of each country need to be scrupulously upheld.)

Images that don't meet these requirements sooner or later are liable to be deleted, but only after discussion and consensus emerges.
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (8)
Taken and uploaded by MercerMJ (Creative Commons by SA 2.0)
Currently in use on Wikipedia, but for how much longer?

This week a big debate erupted on Wikimedia after more than 250 images of Paul Cummins' magnificent poppy installation at the Tower of London in 2014 were put forward for deletion (see this link). Other images that people have taken and uploaded of his currently touring "Weeping Windows" installations (co-created by theatre designer, Tom Piper) are also proposed for removal.

This means that this Wikipedia page could soon lose all its photographic content, and with it the ability for the world's greatest free encyclopaedia to visually communicate the impressive work of Derbyshire artist, Paul Cummins. Is this acceptable? Well, actually, yes it possibly is. Or at least that's what has been put forward by the proposing editor.

My own rather poor photo of Paul Cummins' poppies on tour,
here installed at Derby's Silk Mill Museum in
 a temporary installation entitled "Weeping Windows".
Who owns the right to release this image? Me? The artist? Or both?
The argument put forward for deleting all these photographs is that Wikimedia's own policies prevent it from accepting any uploaded image unless the uploader has the right to do so. They also have to agree to release that image for use under a Creative Commons licence, which allows it to be used for both non-commercial and commercial purposes. (I doubt anyone would ever get rich on any of my photographs, so I'm not too bothered, personally.)

But do I have the right to photograph a temporary artwork created by another people like Paul Cummins (and then to freely release that image for others to use) when the artistic content isn't mine to give away in the first  place, and I don't have their permission?

Well, the policies of Wikimedia apparently say "No", and so photos are routinely listed for deletion and a public discussion on the right ways to implement those policies then takes place. Usually within a week, a consensus will emerge and the decision is then rapidly implemented either to 'Keep' or to 'Delete'.

It doesn't matter about the quality of the image under discussion - it's the content that counts, and any breach of copyright (dependant upon the country it was taken in) has to be recognised and acted upon. This includes consideration of each country's own laws on 'Freedom of Panorama' as well as copyright and 'Derivative Works', and all can be very technical. In this instance, that freedom to publish a photograph of a public place in Britain appears to be irrelevant, but concerns relate instead to the artists' right not to have images of their temporary art installation made available on Wikimedia and Wikipedia for all to see and use without their explicit consent.

So the numerous pictures taken by ordinary people like me of Paul Cummins' amazing poppies may soon disappear from Wikipedia. That would be a great shame,  but it may well be the right thing to do.

Of course, if the copyright owning artist were to  give  their formal permission for images of their work to be released under a Creative Commons Share Alike licence without any restriction on personal or commercial use, then that's another matter. . . 

Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red
Tower of |London. Image credit: Deror_avi;
Creative Commons Share Alike Licence 3.0
But getting those permissions within Wikimedia's ridiculously short 7-day time period is unlikely to happen. Yes, these images can always be restored if permission is retrospectively given, but  sometimes I think we act too hastily on relatively contentious matters like this.

So, rather than moan about Wikimedia's over-conscientious rules, I decided to take action myself. Late on Sunday I sent Paul Cummins an email via his website, asking if he'd be willing to consider granting permission, either for particular images currently in use to  remain online, or for all such images of his work to remain and be available under that creative commons licence. But Paul's a busy man (now mapping where all 888,246 poppies have ended up around the world). So whether he thinks it's worth taking time out to reply to some nerdy Wikipedia editor and to navigate through Wikimedia's image licensing process  remains to be see. I hope he will

Personally, I think Wikimedia needs to sort out its act. It needs to make its interface with the public on image rights much simpler to navigate; it can't expect ordinary organisations, artists and other individuals to understand and wade through its complex permissions process, and it  needs to find an effective way to give more time to editors willing to undertake to make contact and  negotiate with a copyright holder over permissions for images to remain there. Perhaps it needs a 'Defer deletion' process whereby images identified for deletion are held back and not automatically removed until some agreed time-period - perhaps between one and three months - has expired. In reality, an image can sit unchallenged on Wikimedia for many years, but then someone spots and challenges it and we're all suddenly expected to be able to resolve any issues within seven days. Laughable, if you want to try to contact the holder of rights within an image, but that's how it works at present. Trying to do get permission once an image has been deleted is pointless as you can't show the person the image in question, even if it can be restored by a Wikimedia administrator! And don't you dare go on holiday - ever!

I don't confess to fully  understanding the intricacies of how Wikimedia volunteers manage these complex processes and, in doing so, defend not only this amazing resource's reputation, but also the rights and interests of individuals. (I used to call them 'WikiNazis' because of what I saw as their heavy-handed implementation of those rules and summary deletion of images that I and other photographers had innocently taken and uploaded for use on Wikipedia.) But rather than insult these volunteers, they should really be thanked. They're mostly doing a fine job in identifying issues and raising concerns.

Maybe the way things are handled could be done differently, but its only by volunteers being vigilant and careful that can we be sure both Wikimedia and Wikipedia's reputations remain in a good state, that people's copyright interests are appropriately defended, and that the fifth most popular website in the world continues to provide information and images for everyone to use in a fair and legal manner, whoever and wherever they are.

In a future blog post I hope to be able to look in further detail at the interpretation of the relevant laws and how consensus is reached by debate amongst Wikimedia/Wikipedia editors, and some of the different responses and views that are being made right now on this issue.

Meanwhile, here's my email sent to Paul Cummins via his website on 10th September 2017:
Hi Paul  I'm a former member of staff at Derby Museum with a close connection to the Derby Silk Mill, and I adored the display of your work there last summer. I'm retired now, but I contribute a lot of my time to improving articles on Wikipedia (like this one and this one). Thousands of people have photographed your work, and quite a few have been uploaded to illustrate articles on Wikipedia about the different venues your poppies have visited. 
Unfortunately, every one of them is about to be permanently deleted, unless you are prepared to step in to prevent this from happening. The problem is that any picture uploaded to Wikimedia (which holds images on behalf of Wikipedia) requires photographers to permit commercial use of that image. But because you have published a restriction on commercial use on this page (, and because they were part of a temporary installation, not a permanent one, every single image of your poppies on Wikipedia has been proposed for deletion, primarily to protect your interests and to conform with UK law. If you're ok with this, you need do absolutely nothing. 
But if you would like Wikimedia/Wikipedia and others to be able to use photos of your work for decades to come, you really need to step in right away and give your explicit permission now. This could either be for selected images - or all of them - to remain on Wikimedia for both non-commercial and for commercial use. It's only with the consent of you, the copyright holder, that photographs of temporary installations like yours will be allowed to remain on Wikimedia. Please let me know your general view on this. I might be able to hold off total deletion of every image of your work on Wikipedia until we can sort out how to best to arrange for your formal permission for a selected few (or all?) of those pictures to remain and to be used. It would be a real shame if the all the Wikipedia articles about your work were to be devoid of any image for many decades to come. (Including this one about you: 
 If you don't step in to stop deletion, this is precisely what will happen.  Kind regards  Nick Moyes Derby (-former Senior Keeper of Natural Sciences at Derby Museum; winner of Derby Arts Festival for ceramics, 1996; Wikipedian)
And here's the story of those poppies in Paul's own words:

Where are the individual poppies now? Follow this link to learn more.

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