In a milestone for free content, the Dutch government has released pictures of its current cabinet under the GNU Free Documentation License. The images were uploaded to the Wikimedia Commons this week and have quickly been put to use on Wikipedia.
This achievement comes thanks to the efforts of the local chapter of the Wikimedia Foundation. Elly Waterman, chair of the Dutch Wikimedia chapter, wrote to the government seeking freely licensed photos of its leadership. After some discussion, the government agreed to release portraits of the entire cabinet, a total of 27 photos. The images were provided by the Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst, the Dutch government's public information agency.
Although their intellectual property is typically created at taxpayer expense, most governments maintain some degree of control over it. The US federal government provides that works created by its employees in the course of their duties is not subject to copyright protection, but in other countries (as well as in most US states) similar material is not in the public domain.
This state of affairs makes illustrating the articles of politicians an interesting challenge, since images found on the Internet, including on government websites, may not be eligible for use on Wikipedia. Images relying on claims of fair use have been used at times in the past, but the policy regarding use of non-free content disallows such images when it remains possible to create a freely licensed alternative, as is the case for still-living public figures. If no image is yet available, a placeholder image may be used that solicits contribution of a free image.
As a result, free images of politicians are a mixed bag, ranging from pictures taken by Wikipedia contributors to photo ops with US government officials — taking advantage of the aforementioned lack of copyright. (While helpful in terms of illustration, this also fuels complaints that it makes Wikipedia too US-centric, even for subjects that have no particular connection to the US.) Some of the Dutch ministers already had such images in the articles about them. Two-thirds of the cabinet members did not have any image available previously, however.
Images like those provided by the Dutch government are not the end of Wikipedia's needs. Even though public figures may perceive that it serves their interest to provide free-license photos, these will typically be polished, posed shots designed to present a favorable impression. For such subjects, the contributions of other photographers will remain useful to present additional visual perspectives and convey a neutral point of view.
The release of these images is only a first step in terms of persuading governments to make their material compatible with use on Wikimedia projects. The Dutch Wikimedia chapter plans next to seek additional photos from the Dutch parliament. Hopefully additional governments will find it similarly beneficial to put content under free licenses.