As has been widely reported, the National Portrait Gallery of London (NPG) recently sent a legal threat to an American Wikipedian, Derrick Coetzee, over his posting approximately 3,000 photos of public domain paintings to Wikipedia. Because of the importance of this issue for the public domain and the Internet generally, EFF has taken Mr. Coetzee as a client.
Here's the issue at the heart of this dispute: does something have to be in the public domain in every country on the planet before it can be posted to the Internet anywhere?
As we explained to NPG in a letter sent on July 20, it's quite clear under U.S. law that Mr. Coetzee did nothing wrong -- as far as U.S. law is concerned, the photos are not copyrightable, the NPG website's "browsewrap" contract is unenforceable, there is no "database right," and using Zoomify on public domain images doesn't get you a DMCA claim. It's also clear that everything he's alleged to have done took place on his computer and Wikipedia's computers, none of which are in the UK.
In the offline world, that would certainly be the end of the matter. If Mr. Coetzee had flown to London, purchased posters of the same paintings at the museum store, brought them home, and started making copies for his friends, it's clear he would be well within his rights in doing so.
Why should the answer be different simply because he posted the photos to Wikipedia? NPG seems to think that UK law should apply everywhere on the Internet. If that's right, then the same could be said for other, more restrictive copyright laws, as well (see, e.g., Mexico's copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years and France's copyright over fashion designs). That would leave the online world at the mercy of the worst that foreign copyright laws have to offer, an outcome no U.S. court has ever endorsed.