Israeli Archivists Fume Over Wikimedia Israel's Reposting of Historical Photos Trove

Wikimedia Israel, which claims the 28,000 photos were in the public domain, sparked the ire of archivists accusing local affiliate of acting like 'thieves in the night'

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Ofer Aderet
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Central Zionist Archives photos of pre-state Israel, before declaration of its independence in 1948.
Photos of pre-state Israel from the Central Zionist Archives.Credit: Zoltan Kruger/Central Zionist Archives
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The Association of Israeli Archivists has roundly condemned Wikimedia Israel, the local affiliate of the U.S. foundation that runs Wikipedia, for copying into its photo archive 28,000 photographs taken in pre-state Israel.

In a statement Tuesday, the archivists accused Wikimedia Israel of being “thieves in the night” and said the move may violate intellectual property rights and general ethical norms.

Wikimedia Israel denied any wrongdoing, but the archivists’ association said that although “all of us wish to make the materials and information stored in Israeli archives public, not everything is possible.”

Last week it was reported that Wikimedia Israel had gained access to the internet-based databases of leading Israeli archives including the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem and the archives of the Jewish National Fund, also known by its Hebrew name, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael. Wikimedia Israel reportedly downloaded tens of thousands of photographs from the period leading up to Israeli independence in 1948.

Israeli law provides that any photograph at least 50 years old is in the public domain and not subject to copyright protection, though photos taken beginning in 2008 receive 70 years of protection. The photos in question have been posted on the Wikimedia Israel website and are available for use at no charge.

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Central Zionist Archives photos of pre-state Israel.Credit: Zoltan Kruger/Central Zionist Archives

The archivists’ association called this a sting operation that raised concerns about possible violations of intellectual property rights, violations of agreements with the donors of some of the photographs, and what was called a flagrant failure to properly credit the origins of the material.

The organization also accused Wikimedia Israel of failing to consider the legal issues involved and the situation the archives now face. It was not Wikimedia that had located the photos, obtained custody of them and maintained them, the archivists said.

They said they welcomed technology that makes material accessible to the public but said this cannot be the product of “manipulation of material and the violation of an archive’s rights.”

The association also took Wikimedia Israel to task for erasing the watermarks on the photographs that limited access to them. The organization’s chairman, David Amitai, called for negotiations with Wikimedia Israel to establish procedures through which the two sides could cooperate.

For its part, Wikimedia Israel said that in the past organizations with important historical photo archives had not been willing to cooperate. It added that its legal adviser had found that its actions adhered to the law.

Sources at Wikimedia Israel said that the photos were in the public domain, despite the depictions on the archives’ websites, and in some instances the archives have demanded a fee for use of the material.

The San-Francisco-based Wikimedia Foundation runs Wikipedia and related sites. Most of the foundation’s work is carried out by volunteers, though it also employs a small staff of its own.

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