Imagine a world…open culture, open licensing

Open Licensing for Cultural Heritage

Fred Saunderson and Gill Hamilton argue that open licensing is an affordable and realistic means to enable active, engaged reuse of cultural material by all, as they introduce their new book, Open Licensing for Cultural Heritage.

‘Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.’

This bold and challenging statement by Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, is familiar to any of us working in the cultural heritage sector. After all, we have been providing this sort of service for centuries by giving (in most cases) free-at-the-point-of-use access to the knowledge, art and creativity held in the rich physical collections of our galleries, libraries, archives and museums (Glams), and many people who have used our collections have gone on to create new art, knowledge, and inventions and made new discoveries.

Open access 

In this digital era, we can extend our reach far beyond the limitations of our physical collections and spaces, potentially reaching every single person on the planet, by sharing our digital and digitised culture via the internet and the world wide web. And, of course, digital brings new opportunities that are not possible when working with physical collections. Digital resources can be readily distributed via the web, duplicated, adapted to make new resources and content, and instantly redistributed and shared. To ensure that everyone who visits a collection digitally has the same opportunity to learn from and be inspired as those who visit physically, and that these visitors are able to exploit the utility that comes with digital, we must endeavour to provide free and open access to digital collections. The tool for achieving this is open licensing. 

Lack of access must be tackled

Unfortunately, few of the digital resources created by Glams are openly licensed. Europeana, the European digital cultural heritage service, estimates that of the three billion cultural objects in Europe only about 10 per cent are available digitally. Perhaps surprisingly only a third of these 300 million digital resources are available online, and of those a mere three per cent (three million) are legally and technically available for creative use and reuse. In an age of sharing, collaborating and huge digital potential, a woefully small amount of Europe’s culture is openly reusable in digital form, and most of it is either not openly licensed or not made available ­online at all. This lack of open and free ­access to our culture, knowledge and creativity must be tackled head-on, with ­informed, determined Glams at the forefront. 

We in the cultural sector have absolutely grasped the value of digital, evidenced by the millions of pounds, euros and dollars that are poured into digitisation efforts every year. Today, with these investments increasingly ­established as de rigueur, we must think ­beyond providing passive access to culture. With open licensing we now have an ­affordable and realistic means to enable active, engaged reuse of cultural material by all.

Open source ethos

Open licensing as it works today derives from the open source software movement, the philosophy established in the 1960s and 70s. The open source ethos was that to license software freely and openly, for anyone to use, would foster collaboration in software development, produce high quality, non-proprietary code, and reduce costs. Such was the appeal and success of the open source approach that it initiated and influenced a wider ‘open movement’ that now touches nearly all aspects of society, business and education. Today we have the world wide web, a technology based on open source software, open education, open government, Open Access, and open data, all of which are founded on the application of open licences to intellectual and creative outputs.

Open licensing

Open licensing allows one party to clearly, durably, and effectively communicate to others that a particular item, resource, or work may be used and reused. For ­example, a university lecturer may develop course materials for an undergraduate ­degree, and in doing so the university, as their employer, will own the copyright in this work. The university may then decide to assign an open licence to the course materials so that they may be used and reused by others without them having to specifically request permission from the university on a case-by-case basis. In doing so, the univer­sity remains the copyright holder of the work but has chosen, through application of an open licence, to make the work available in a widely and openly usable way. 

Open means impact

The open movement, not to mention the wider copyright and intellectual property environment from which it has in part arisen, has a pivotal, complex intersection with digitisation and the sharing of collections. A diverse range of institutions have successfully embraced openness and applied open ­licences, illustrating the considerable value and benefit that organisations, users, and creators alike can derive from an open approach. For example, the National Library of Wales has seen significant benefits following the ­appointment of Wikipedian-in-Residence Jason Evans, and the open licensing of their digitised collections. These openly licensed images, made available via the library’s website and Wikimedia Commons (the Wikimedia Foundation image hosting service), have been used in numerous Welsh and English language Wikipedia articles. This has contributed to the global understanding of Wales and Welsh culture, and derived a greater impact from the collections than would have been possible if the content had remained unlicensed or under a closed licence. 

Similarly, the National Gallery of Denmark recognised that continuing to offer bespoke licensing and transaction fees for digitised versions of the Gallery’s artworks was expensive, unsustainable and a barrier to Danish people accessing their cultural heritage. After a short pilot to test and evaluate an open licensing approach, the Gallery licensed all of its digitisations of public domain artworks with a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) licence, in essence placing the digital versions into the public domain. Since providing open access to collections, the Gallery has seen its artworks used in community projects, shared and discussed via social media channels, and included in Wikipedia articles, all of which raises awareness of the national collections, demonstrates a greater return on investment in digitisation and digital access, and leads to deeper levels of impact.

Benefits outweigh risks

Open resources have the potential for greater reach and usability, can drive creativity and contribute to the digital economy. Compared to the complexity and costs associated with closed and bespoke licensing ­approaches, an open licensing framework offers simplicity, reducing licence maintenance costs to ­almost zero. Risks associated with open licensing, such as the potential loss of income or control over how ­materials are used, can be addressed, countered and mitigated. When done right, the benefits of open licensing far outweigh any negative impacts or risks. 

Forward looking, inclusive, modern, relevant cultural heritage organisations must play a central role in supporting free, open access to culture at a global level. This is possible, practical and achievable with considered and informed application of an open licensing framework.

Book Information

Fred Saunderson and Gill Hamilton are co-authors of Open Licensing for Cultural Heritage, a book that offers guidance, practical advice and -examples of best practise for those considering or planning to implement open access to their collections through the application of open licences.

The authors share the considerable knowledge they have gained from developing an open licensing policy at the National Library of Scotland, and from their professional experience in working with open knowledge and intellectual property organisations and groups such as the Libraries and Archives Copyright Alliance, Wikimedia UK, Europeana and Open Knowledge International.

Open Licensing for Cultural Heritage is published by Facet Publishing. ISBN: 9781783301850. £64.95, £51.95 to CILIP members. 

This article was originally published in CILIP Update Magazine, September 2017.

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