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Israel's national photo collection being released for free use

February 6, 2012 |  9:16 pm

REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- The Israeli government is gradually releasing its National Photo Collection from copyright restrictions. 

It's an online treasure trove of 150,000 photographs compiled and scanned from around half a million pictures and put on a searchable website in honor of Israel's jubilee year in 1998.

Images of key figures, pivotal moments and just plain interesting photographs documenting Israel's history will now be freely available for fair use, largely released from copyright. The recent announcement follows a years-long process of changing antiquated copyright laws and generally turning a corner into the Information Age. 

"We welcome any move that grants the public access to information and its historic materials," said Itzik Edri, spokesman for Wikimedia, Israel.

Edri said the government was still trying to control the information, as new regulations allow free use for researchers, students and journalists but not political or commercial purposes. "Currently, the terms of use are too complicated and open to interpretation."

The results of Israel's policy are evident in Wikipedia, where Israel-related entries are often illustrated with outdated, off-topic photographs because the best ones were off-limits.

The entry for the 1976 Entebbe Operation sports a picture of an old air-control tower, the 1972 hijacking of Sabena flight 571 has no picture at all, despite compelling photos of dramatic moments documented by Israeli officials. And had it not been for American news reports, there would be little illustration of the entry on Adolf Eichmann, whose landmark trial was meticulously covered in Israel.

Many Israeli leaders owe their Wiki-photographs to photographers of other governments. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak can thank the State Department, the Pentagon and the President of the Russian Federation for theirs. That of Golda Meir, Israel's only female prime minister, comes from the Library of Congress.

The Knesset's finance committee will continue discussion of the issue in coming weeks, as relinquishing copyright altogether eats away at government income from small fees, officials say. But the roughly $100,000 the photo collection brings in a year is "a small price to pay for a tremendous benefit," Edri said.

The government press office, meanwhile, has begun uploading some historic pictures to its new Flickr account.

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-- Batsheva Sobelman

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