The right to click

English Heritage, officially the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, and funded by the taxpayer and by visitors to some of its properties, does a great deal of very good work in widening public appreciation of, and engagement with, history and the country’s heritage.

But its ViewFinder image gallery website* sadly falls into the trap of trying to restrict public engagement rather than make it easy. Yes, someone specified the old ‘right click disabled‘ policy:

English Heritage Viewfinder: right-click disabled
Screenshots of this page, launched from this page.

Now, the image in question – here’s a direct link – which happens to be an engraving of the former Datchet bridge**, in 1840 according to this page (with a colour image) is, even taking English Heritage’s “1860-1922” suggested date range, surely out of copyright, so presumably there cannot be any ‘legal’ question over ‘letting’ people save a copy (which is easiest to do by right-clicking on the most common operating systems and browsers). Using Javascript to remove the browser toolbars and menus also hides the ability to print the image for most users, presumably also deliberately.

Yes, of course, many (most?) readers of this post will know how to get around the no-right-click architecture of control, but you’re reading a technology blog; think of whom the site is presumably aimed at. It is supposed to be a resource to encourage public engagement with history and heritage. Most users will be computer-literate enough to know how to search and probably familiar with right-clicking, but not to mess round with selectively disabling Javascript. Why should they have to? Incidentally, if you do disable Javascript entirely, you can’t even view an enlarged image at all:

English Heritage Viewfinder

What actual use to the public, other than for momentary on-screen interest, is a photo archive website where nothing can be ‘done’ with the images? What is a child doing a local history project supposed to do? Order a print at £18.80 for each photo and then scan it in? Does English Heritage really think that the ability for someone to save or print or e-mail a low-resolution 72 dpi image is going to devalue or compete with the organisation in some way?

It’s ridiculous: such a short-sighted, narrow-mindset policy removes a significant proportion of the usefulness of the site. I don’t know whether the site developer did this with or without English Heritage’s instruction or cognizance (and it was in 2002, so perhaps different thinking would apply today), but it seems that no-one bothered to think through what an actual user might want to get from interacting with the site.

In fact, regardless of the fact that this particular image (as with many others on the site) is in the public domain, even the images which are still under copyright (or “© English Heritage.NMR” as the site puts it, NMR being the National Monuments Record) should, of course, be freely downloadable, printable, and do-whatever-you-want-able. Their acquisition, preservation and cataloguing were paid for by the public, and they should all be available as widely, and easily, as possible. As it is, I would call the website a waste of public money, since it does not appear to offer what most intended users would expect and need.

Still, at least the site’s not one giant bundle of Flash. That would make it marginally more hassle to extract the images.

*Partially funded by the Big Lottery Fund, and thus not entirely directly taxpayer-funded, unless one regards the National Lottery as an extra tax on the hopeful and desperate, which some commentators would.
**Almost exactly the spot where I’ve been testing a prototype radio-controlled toy for a client this very afternoon, in fact, though the bridge is long gone.

14 Comments

  1. Pingback: University Update - DRM - The right to click

  2. This zeroes in on one of my biggest frustrations, which is the terror almost all cultural institutions have of image theft. Most museums and galleries that I am personally familiar with are served by the most conservative and old fashioned ivory tower IP lawyers in their respective communities, and they, like all the other board members and benefactors tend to share an attitude focused only on protecting precious historical artifacts. Curators and those concerned with drawing public attendance are typically hamstrung by this attitude of their ‘superiors’.

    Many of us bemoan the paucity of culture on the web. We tend to be very familiar with the endless copyright wrangles relating to, for example, films. Most of us do not realize that our primary custodial institutions are yet so far removed from this new electronic world we inhabit as to be another species or on another planet. Yet it is, as you say, our cultural history.

    The quality of print information available online increases with time (despite the attendant volume of drek) yet the availability of images stagnates in comparison.

    (end rant :))

    Vera

  3. There is a valid reasoning for this sort of DRM in general the livelihood of museums and art galleries depends on being the only one to display some picture or have near-perfect reproductions of images. However, because this is a publicly funded group, they exist for the public good, and in this case, it is in the best interests of the public to be able to access these pictures in any format they deem necessary.

    I could understand if they were just stopping massive downloads of their images, but disabling right click is a little excessive. God forbid I want to save a whole dozen of these images one-by-one.

    On a side note, I love how, in my browser, the Javascript alert appears after I’ve right clicked and save the image.

  4. This attitude of actively thwarting the intent to “serve the public” seems to be despressingly common. By coincidence, the Guardian today is running a story on how the Environment Agency (another public body) has moved to stop an outside side (OnOneMap) from offering its flood data in a more usable form to prospective housebuyers.

    See http://technology.guardian.co.uk/weekly/story/0,,2118152,00.html

  5. The livelihood of museums and art galleries may depend on it, but there is no entitlement to it nonetheless. If something is in the public domain, then there should certainly be no, I repeat NO DRM associated with it. And of course if something is taxpayer-funded it should be public domain!

    As for getting around this kind of insipid and stupid DRM, it’s easy. One way is to use Firefox. Tools menu, Options, Content, enable Javascript, and “Advanced…” and uncheck all the evil things (move, resize, disable or replace context menus, mess with the status bar…) — right click should now work. Also, sites should no longer be able to mislead you as to where a link is going by blocking the destination URL appearing in the status bar when you point at the link, which is important for detecting some outright evil things, including bogus links on phishing sites.

    A second method is to simply zoom the image and hit print-screen. Open photoshop, hit paste, and crop the windows-cruft out from around the image of interest. (This also often works to get at some other DRMed stuff. Individual video frames from a DVD for instance. It’s also useful for capturing modal dialogs or error messages or EULA text that isn’t selectable for copying to the clipboard, so you can later transcribe it easily or otherwise reference it or use it. Print screen and Firefox – saving a little bit of our few remaining fair use rights every day.)

  6. Oh and did I mention that if you can get the image’s URL (and you can, e.g. by viewing the page source or even using browser features to list all the page elements and their URLs) you can save a copy? Just paste the URL into the address bar for the high-res image, then right click and “Save As” or File…Save As. Or download it programmatically. It’s doable with about three lines of non-boilerplate Java code, thanks to the rich class library that comes with the language. Wget works too, if they don’t deny images to robots on the site. If it won’t work you can probably configure wget to spoof an IE user-agent and ignore robots.txt. Of course you can also throw together a file called “foo.html” containing a single plain-text link to the image file URL, then right click THAT and “save as”. If the site feeds you something different for the same URL than the image, throw in Proxomitron and spoof the referer (sic) as the URL of the page on which the image is hosted.

    There are always ways to beat these b*stards at their own games.

  7. patrick o'hara

    Dear Dan

    First up stumbled on this by accident and as I work for EH I thought I would try it out. I tried to access the image at work fine no problem it worked perfectly with a right click. Then I thought perhaps thats because I am logged on at work so here I am this morning on my own PC very basic and again no problems with the Datchet image or with a couple of others. Right clicked saved to desk top and it would email and print from there if I wanted to.
    By the way very pleased to have made acquaintenance with your blog as a non techie I hope to return and try to learn something more.

    Best regards
    Paddy

  8. Pingback: OLDaily[中文版] » Blog Archive » 2007å¹´7月5æ—¥

  9. Dan

    Hi Paddy,

    Thanks for the comment. Could you let me know – did you actually click on the ‘Enlarge’ link on this page? And then right-click on the enlarged image?

    Doing a bit more experimentation, it is true that the Javascript ‘protection’ doesn’t seem particularly robust. E.g. in IE6, the right-click menu does not appear, but the little ‘Picture toolbar’ does eventually appear (and allow you to save/print etc as you say).

    That seems to suggest a misguided/poorly implemented system (as Aaron notes) rather than a really serious attempt to prevent the user copying the image, and I apologise if my comments were a little harsh. But I still don’t see why any kind of restriction – whether effective or not – is needed.

    Noneof2’s instructions above are great for circumventing this kind of restriction when you come across it elsewhere, and where it’s more robustly implemented.

    Vera’s comment, and Geoff’s mention of the OnOneMap / Environment Agency flood data débâcle illustrate something even worse about the tendency of public bodies to lock up publicly funded data: the often complete intransigence when faced with people who want to build on the information or use it in a way which is (often more) beneficial to the public. On the subject of image collections again, Frankie Roberto points to Public Resource’s eloquent criticism (and subversion) of the Smithsonian’s restrictions on its online image library.

  10. I like your blog, but I think that this subject is the most interesting of your last posts. Bye, Lucy Relatos.

  11. Go here:
    http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?ie=UTF8&oe=UTF-8&hl=en&q=&ll=51.153697,-0.191499&spn=0.002069,0.003927&t=k&z=19&om=1

    Try using Google’s option to print the map. It decides you don’t want the satellite image, but the road map. Duh? So, you have to use Alt-Print-Scrn and crop the thing and print it using some image processing app. This is making things easy.

    I dare not mention Ordnance Survey and how ‘easy’ they have made it to print a map (that the fricking taxpayer already paid for).

  12. Valentin

    This “no-right-click” scripts are even more anoying for people (like me) that are using mouse gestures to navigate. Most mouse gestures are done by holding the right mouse button and making some movements with the mouse, e.g. hold right mouse button and move mouse a bit to the left = browser back to last page. Mouse gestures are build into Opera and supported by a Firefox plugin – and they really speed up the work with the browser …. unless you come accross one of these pages, where you are not only stopped from copying but from all uses of the right mouse button …

    And really these things are sooo easy to bypass – no need to worry about disabling JavaScript – as long as the image fits on your screen: use screen capture (and there are numerous free tools that allow to capture only a part of the screen, doing away with the need to crop the picture afterwards). This also works with pics embedded in flash .. or anything actually 🙂

  13. Pingback: Frankie Roberto’s weblog - A backlash against public online image archives?

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