Carl Malamud of has launched the 'What Would Luther Burbank Do?' campaign. The campaign is to push the Smithsonian to change their copyright restrictions.

Malamud seeks to unlock Smithsonian archives

Carl Malamud, who has spent two decades cajoling the government into putting public data online for free, is confronting his latest institutional Goliath.

The Sebastopol activist has launched a new campaign targeting the Smithsonian Institution and its policy of charging licensing fees to use public images downloaded from its vast collection of historic American artifacts.

Unlike the Library of Congress and the National Archives, the Smithsonian is alone in charging the public to use images from its collections.

"I think that is illegal, and unconscionable," Malamud said. "Many, many more artists would be using this material, but it's all locked up."

Government agencies cannot claim copyright and charge licensing fees, he said.

The Smithsonian did not return calls seeking comment.

Malamud, who pestered the Securities and Exchange Commission into putting corporate filings online in the 1990s and has continued to roil government since, has added a uniquely Sonoma County twist in his public fight against the Smithsonian.

His campaign slogan: "What Would Luther Burbank Do?"

Luther Burbank, the famed Santa Rosa botanist who died in 1926, became world renowned for crossbreeding various plants to create whole new fruits, flowers and other plants that he distributed across the globe.

Malamud thinks Americans should have similarly free access to reproduce, alter and distribute public-domain images found in the Smithsonian's collection.

"They have these wonderful collections that any teacher should be able to use, or any filmmaker, or any small business," he said. "It would help spur education, economic activity, and it's just the right thing to do."

So Malamud went to Washington last week where he met with lawmakers to discuss the issue.

Last year, Google awarded $2 million to Malamud's nonprofit group, Public.Resource.Org, to carry out this kind of work.

Malamud has also decided to intentionally flaunt the Smithsonian's policy in hopes of landing the dispute in court, where a judge could decide if the nation's public museum should be allowed to charge licensing fees.

From the Smithsonian's website, Malamud downloaded images of old seed packets — little pieces of workaday art from Luther Burbank's era — and had the pictures distributed on and printed on coffee mugs and posters.

The Smithsonian, which received about $800 million in taxpayer funding in 2011, forbids anyone from altering or distributing images downloaded from its website — even if the images are available elsewhere online and no longer copyright protected, according to policies outlined on its website.

Teachers and students are required to pay a $33 fee to use Smithsonian images in book reports or classroom instruction, according to its website. Nonprofit and academic journals are expected to pay as much as $675 to publish a single image archived in the nation's public museum.

Mindy Sommers, an artist from Poultney, Vt., inadvertently ran amiss of the Smithsonian's licensing fees earlier this year when she used images from its seedpacket collection in some of her artwork, which was for sale online. She received a letter from the Smithsonian asking her to pay up or stop selling the art.

Sommers was galled.

"I'm an artist, of course I respect copyright. I'm very mindful of it," she said. "But this stuff is public domain."

So she contacted Malamud in February, and he launched his latest campaign. Since then, the Smithsonian has backed off its original request to Sommers.

"To me, Carl is a hero," Sommers said. "He is fighting for artists everywhere."

Malamud said he understands the nation's museum is just trying to raise additional funds to support its cause, but he does not believe that justifies stifling creativity and commerce.

"They are doing this to raise revenue, and I'm sympathetic to that," he said. "But it's just not their call."

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.