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Wikimedia Sweden found guilty of violating copyright with database of images of public art

Decision by Supreme Court could have implications for other jurisdictions, legal experts say

The Swedish Supreme Court has ruled that Wikimedia Sweden’s free database of images of public works of art violates copyright laws. The Visual Copyright Society in Sweden (BUS) had sued Wikimedia, part of the non-profit foundation that oversees Wikipedia, for providing the public with a database of royalty-free images without the artists’ permission.

Visitors to the open database, Offentlig Konst, which is owned by Wikimedia Sweden, can browse maps, descriptions and images of public works, including monuments, sculptures and paintings.

The Supreme Court ruled that while taking photographs of works in public spaces was acceptable, it was “an entirely different matter” to store those images on a database for unlimited use. “Such a database can be assumed to have a commercial value that is not insignificant. The court finds that the artists are entitled to that value.”

Legal experts say the case could have far-reaching implications. “I would expect artist’s collecting societies in other countries to look at the judgement carefully and consider what action they might want to take in their jurisdictions, subject to what their own laws permit,” says Simon Stokes, an intellectual property lawyer and partner at the UK firm, Blake Morgan.

According to AFP, Wikimedia Sweden suggested that tourists who take photographs in front of public monuments and post them online might also be at risk of copyright violation. Stokes says: “Photographers can be rather blasé about rights artists have in their works—just because a work is on public display doesn't mean it can be photographed.”

Michelle Paulson, the legal director of the Wikimedia Foundation, says in a blog post that she “respectfully disagreed” with the Supreme Court's decision. "Wikimedia Sweden and the Wikimedia Foundation will continue to defend the dissemination of free information, including freedom of panorama, on sites like Wikimedia Commons and Offentligkonst.se, and across the Wikimedia movement," she says.