Self-preservation and the National Portrait Gallery’s dispute with the Wikimedia community

Running an organization is difficult in and of itself, no matter what its goals. Every transaction it undertakes–every contract, every agreement, every meeting–requires it to expend some limited resource: time, attention, or money. Because of these transaction costs, some sources of value are too costly to take advantage of. As a result, no institution can put all its energies into pursuing its mission; it must expend considerable effort on maintaining discipline and structure, simply to keep itself viable. Self-preservation of the institution becomes job number one, while its stated goal is relegated to job number two or lower, no matter what the mission statement says. The problems inherent in managing these transaction costs are one of the basic constraints shaping institutions of all kinds.

From: Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, pp. 29-30 (my emphasis)

Shirky’s book is about “organizing without organizations”, a key example of which is the Wikimedia community (as distinct from the Wikimedia Foundation). The Wikimedia community can accomplish a lot of big projects–making knowledge and information and cultural heritage accessible and free–that traditional organizations would find far too expensive. And that paragraph from Shirky explains the root of the tension between the Wikimedia community and many traditional organizations with seemingly compatible goals–organizations such as the National Portrait Gallery in London, which sent a legal threat to Wikimedian Derrick Coetzee this week.

The NPG has a laudable mission and aims: “to promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture, and … to promote the appreciation and understanding of portraiture in all media”, and “to bring history to life through its extensive display, exhibition, research, learning, outreach, publishing and digital programmes.”

But in pursuing self-preservation first and foremost, the gallery asks a high price for its services of digitizing and making available the works it keeps: to fund the digitization of its collections and other institutional activities, the NPG would claim copyright on all the digital records it produces and prevent access to others who would make free digital copies. As one Wikipedian put it, the NPG is “trying to ‘Dred Scott‘ works already escaped into PD ‘back south’ into Copyright Protected dominion”.

If the choice is between a) waiting to digitize these public domain works until costs are lower or more funding is available, or b) diminishing the public domain and emboldening others who would do the same, then I’ll choose to wait.

2 thoughts on “Self-preservation and the National Portrait Gallery’s dispute with the Wikimedia community

  1. David Gerard

    Yes. It struck me as fairly obvious bureaucratic empire building.

    What's worse is that the NPG is not even an independent charity – it's a government sub-department. Letters to ministers time!

    Reply
  2. pfctdayelise

    You and I would choose to wait, but institutions face pressure from their purse-holders and peers to be making ever-ongoing progress on the digitisation front.

    Wait until cultural institutions receive the government funding they need… hah!! Sounds like waiting for hell to freeze over.

    Reply

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