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Wikimedia Is So Sorry For Taking Historical Photos From Israeli Archives Without Permission

The local branch of San Francisco-headquartered nonprofit The Wikimedia Foundation Inc., which also operates Wikipedia, stirred controversy in November when it uploaded 28,000 public-domain photos extracted from public and private archives in Israel to its openly available online media archive Wikimedia Commons.

In a letter sent one week later, AIA claimed that Wikimedia acted “like thieves in the night,” calling its actions a “sting operation.” The archivists were especially outraged by Wikimedia’s removal of watermarks from the photos and went as far as accusing the nonprofit of several legal offenses, including copyright infringement and image manipulation.

The released photos include images documenting the early days of Jewish settlement in what later became the state of Israel.

In order to complete the project, Wikimedia developed automatic tools to scan through the online archives, detecting images whose copyright had expired. These images were then uploaded to Wikimedia Commons’ servers along with their metadata, making them freely available to the public.

The photos were all taken before 1947, putting them in the public domain according to Israeli law, which determines copyright for photographic images to be in force for 50 years from the moment of a photo’s creation. All images were extracted from the archives’ websites, which, though visible to anyone, were often unsearchable. In some cases, the photos were also watermarked by the archive or placed under various restrictions of use, despite their copyright having expired years ago.

Wikimedia was extra careful not to compromise the organizations’ copyrights, taking a 20-year safety margin for error, Michal Lester, executive director for Wikimedia Israel, said in a phone interview with Calcalist. “We did not want to take any chances of hurting these companies, just give the public what it already owned,” she added.

According to Lester, Wikimedia successfully negotiated with Israel’s Government Press Office to release its public domain photos but the company’s requests were ignored or refused by the Israel State Archives, the Central Zionist Archive, and other large archives in the country.

Header image: The graduation ceremony of the first batch of Jewish air force pilots in 1939. Source: Wikimedia