Piracy threatens digitised art

August 06, 2003

A SCHEME to digitise famous paintings that was unveiled last week by the National Gallery in London may be placing the collection at risk of digital piracy. Now music and movie makers are warning the world of fine arts to act quickly if it wants to prevent the same kind of high-tech piracy that is crippling their industries.

The National Gallery has been working with computer giant Hewlett-Packard for 8 years on a scheme to digitise all of its 2300 paintings. The images have been captured with a digital camera that steps backwards and forwards over the painting, a technique that improves the resolution of the image to 100 megapixels, 20 times that of the best consumer cameras. When someone places an order, a six-colour printer in the gallery's shop will print out a high-quality copy in just five minutes.

The gallery hopes to generate extra revenue by allowing accredited print shops around the world to sell copies as well. "The music industry has gone digital. We want to see the same process in the world of fine arts," says Vyomesh Joshi, executive vice-president of HP's Imaging and Printing Group. This will mean sending the images over the internet, giving pirates a chance to make illegal copies.

The music industry has been hit hard by digital piracy. It says the poor security of the CD system now means that one in three music CDs is a pirate copy. "If we had ever envisaged [the ability to make perfect copies of CDs] we would have pressed for greater protection in the CD system," says Jay Berman, who runs the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), the world trade body for the record industry.

The gallery seems resigned to a similar fate. "There is nothing we can do about it," says Jennifer Lea, a spokeswoman for the gallery. It is not even bothering to protect the images. Huw Robson, manager of HP's Digital Media Systems Laboratory, says the digitised images and hard-copy prints will not be protected by digital watermarks. If a file is hacked or a high-quality print scanned and copied, the gallery will be unable to prove the source.

Owning the copyright to digital images will give the gallery some protection under the law. But it won't be easy to enforce, if the music industry's attempts to tackle piracy are anything to go by. It sued the file-sharing website Napster for breach of copyright but only after pirated copies of music files had swept the world. The IFPI says that the music piracy industry is now worth $4.6 billion a year. Michael Kuhn, who helped Polygram and Philips launch the first CDs 20 years ago, says: "Looking back, record companies should have spent every day thinking about piracy. Film studio brass should be doing that now. So too the fine art bosses."
New Scientist issue: 9 August 2003
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