Disrespectful handling of digitalized cultural artifacts

On several occasions I have had the opportunity to discuss digitalization of traditional media. In particular to images that are no longer covered by copyright. Those who act as caretakers and gatekeepers for these cultural treasures have long been positive to digitalization – but were quick to discover that digitalization alone is not enough. The turning point of public opinion occurred when the Library of Congress began its pilot project with Flickr in the Flickr Commons. Read more about it on the Library of Congress blog or the report from the pilot.

Despite the anecdotal evidence, the gut feeling and the report some gatekeepers are still concerned about what will happen to “their” images if the plebeian mass can access them freely.

At first I thought their fears stemmed from a loss of income from selling prints, but this seems not to be their main concern even if some do refer to this. There main concern is the way in which the images will be treated.

They fear the disrespectful handling of digitalized cultural artifacts.

Now you may well ask yourselves how a digitalized artifact may be manhandled? Obviously it is not about destruction but there are concerns about use. The legal protection is long gone. The photographs are long since in the public domain and can be used and abused at will. This is of concern to the caretakers/gatekeepers since they have been entrusted with the images in physical form. In almost all cases they have received the photographs with a promise that they are preserving a part of cultural heritage. They believe that in their role as cultural preservers lies a duty to ensure that the photographers honor is not sullied by disagreeable online use.

And they know all too well that once digitalization and access has been granted there is no longer any control.

While I am a copyright minimalist and I think our protection terms are way too long I do feel there is a point here. How can museums and archives fulfill their duty to preserve what they have received in trust while maintaining their duty to provide access to culture?

Then I look at the work done by the Swedish National Heritage Board in relation to this question. They have put a small selection of their images on the Flickr Commons. A mere 274 photographs by Carl Curman (1833-1913).

The photographs have been accessed over 200  000 time since 17 March this year, that’s less than four months! Or 50 000 views per month (K-Blogg).

Besides pushing the almost unknown Carl Curman to a portion of internet fame the project at the Swedish National Heritage Board has brought back to life a set of dead photographs. Image how many times a photograph is seen in it’s lifetime. The average must be depressingly low. The most popular photograph in their project has been viewed 7805 times. Stop. Read the numbers and think. Seven thousand eight hundred and five times.

Stockholm by Carl Curman now seen by one more person: You…

Sure the photo will be ripped off. It will be posted on websites, stored on computers, used in presentations and the name of Carl Curman will be disassociated from the picture he took. Even more certain is that the Swedish Cultural Heritage Board will not be attributed enough for their thankless task of bringing this dead cultural artifact to life. But let us remember the old adage – no good dead goes unpunished.

The role of the caretaker/gatekeeper is, not a they once believed it to be, to prevent access. In the real world, grubby fingers and clumsy handling destroy the real artifact and lose it to the whole world. That is why we should be kept away from the real thing. But in the digital world the same is not true. What the flickr commons shows beyond a doubt is that while digitalization is good, it is nothing without access.

Ask Carl Curman.

Museums are doing it

Today I came across a notice that the Powerhouse Museum is adopting the attribution, non-commercial, no-derivatives Creative Commons license (for the material it owns)

This licence is used on some parts of our website. Examples are our own photography in the Photo of the Day blog and also for children’s activities on our Play at Powerhouse website. This licence means that you can republish this material for any non-commercial purpose as long as you give attribution back to the Powerhouse Museum as the creator and that you do not modify the work in any way. A more detailed explanation of this licence is available from Creative Commons.

And not long ago I found that the Brooklyn Museum was also using the same license.

This is in addition to the great collection of museums and institutions which have chosen to join the Flickr Commons.

The key goals of The Commons on Flickr are to firstly show you hidden treasures in the world’s public photography archives, and secondly to show how your input and knowledge can help make these collections even richer.

Among the 23 organisations in the Flickr Commons is the Swedish National Heritage Board which has begun putting photographs online. How about this photo from the small fishing town of Lysekil

Photograph: People in old Lysekil by Carl Curman (c:a 1870) uploaded RÄA

Flying to a medieval city

One of the best things with this job are the occaissional opportunities to travel to places of interest that I may not normally have traveled to. Tomorrow I get to travel to one of those places which has been on my list of travel destinations for a long time. Tomorrow the first leg of the journey is Stockholm (lovely city but not much excitement here) but the second part is a flight to the island of Gotland and the amazing city of Visby.

Luckily I have the afternoon to explore the medieval city, I only hope that the snow lets up and maybe the sun will shine for enough time for some photography.

The real reason for the visit is a copyright and technology seminar at the Swedish National Heritage Board. So all in all a trip to look forward to: an exotic medieval city and a cultural seminar. This is my kind of trip.

Positive Procrastination

While procrastination is often seen as a negative act it does have a positive side. Of course if the procastination we enjoy turns out to be positive and leads to a result – is this really procrastination at all? Hmm an academic Zen koan… but I digress and possibly procrastinate.

Since returning to Göteborg from my Open Access project in Lund there has appeared a small window of opportunity to begin doing something more substantial and long term. So based upon this premise I happily ignore a bunch of more pressing, but smaller, tasks in order to create a meaningful long term project.

Thus far I have located and area, a vague plan of action, a whole bunch of related work and now I am formulating a thesis to be presented, argued and defended. So with the risk of jinxing the project by talking about it at this early stage my idea is to write a book (not very original since I am an academic) on the connection between copyright, culture and innovation.

There! It’s out now. So all I need to do now is to fine tune the thesis and begin purposely bashing the keyboard. Who said that procrastination is all bad?

From Bizzaro by Piraro

Interesting course offered at Lund

Intellectual property tends to be taught by and to lawyers which is a shame since they tend to focus on addressing the questions of how the law works. This handyman approach is necessary since most of the students are going to go out an apply the law – the idea is that they do not really need to understand the law beyond its application. We do not educate law students we simply fill them with facts.

So when law courses are taught outside the auspices of the law department it’s time to sit up and listen.

The course Intellectual Property and Digital Information: Law, Politics, and Culture is being offered by the section for ABM (Archive, Library, Information and Museum Science) of the Department of Cultural Sciences. Here is part of the course description:

The course is intended to deal with these issues from a number of different perspectives, specifically considering cultural, political, legal, but also economical aspects, including those relevant outside a Western context. It will provide an overview of the legal situation in a national, European, and international setting and also look at some hotly debated disputes and international agreements. We will gain an understanding of the various forms of intellectual property (copyright, patent, trademark, etc.) as well as concern ourselves with alternative concepts including the creative commons, open access, open source, and also file-sharing and piracy, and anchor them in a cultural and political context.

See what I mean? Lawyers would hardly be interested in the wider perspective in this manner. I wonder if I should apply to the course…

The Orwell Diaries

Starting next week (9th August) George Orwell’s diaries will be published online at The Orwell Prize.

Orwell Prize is delighted to announce that, to mark the 70th anniversary of the diaries, each diary entry will be published on this blog exactly seventy years after it was written, allowing you to follow Orwell’s recuperation in Morocco, his return to the UK, and his opinions on the descent of Europe into war in real time. The diaries end in 1942, three years into the conflict.

Putting the diaries online is a very cool way of using the web and showing how important cultural artefacts can be made available to anyone and everyone without depriving someone of access. This has been done several times before but I must say that I am looking forward to reading Orwell’s private diary. This is technology put to good use.

George Orwell square in Barcelona is under camera surveillance! Is this an instance of beauracratic humor? Photo by Wrote (CC by-nc)

The tyranny of “free”

Over at Macuser Dan Moren replies to the question “why can’t all iPhone apps be free? posed by Anita Hamilton in TIME. Moren widens the question to apply to the whole concept of free stuff but naturally focuses on free software. His point is the way in which the public at large have connected the concept of free (gratis) with the idea of value.

We are not entitled to software any more than we are entitled to the other products that we buy day in, day out. We’ve been spoiled because so many developers give things away for free (which, of course, is their prerogative), and we’ve gotten used to the idea of streaming our television online, or even stealing our music from file-sharing services. The idea of “free” has been co-opted into the idea that products aren’t worth money—which couldn’t be farther from the truth.

This is good stuff up until the end. I don’t think that people stealing music, downloading films or demanding free software are confused into thinking that these products are not worth money. But this does not detract from the main point in the paragraph that we are not entitled to stuff (for free).

On a primary level this is obviously true but it is not all the truth. On the level of basic needs (human, cultural, physical) there are naturally arguments to be made that stuff should be free. There are even easy arguments to be made that it is acceptable to break rules, laws & regulations when such basic needs are threatened. In addition to this there is the problematic area that we are bombarded with false needs through advertising which state (implicitly) that we are less evolved as beings unless we have the latest widget, designer toy or status gizmo. Naturally the latter is not a clear argument but it does certainly muddy the waters.

The problem with free, as Moren sees it comes with value and payment:

The whole point of payment is that you give someone money to take care of a problem that you don’t want to do yourself. You could save a bundle of money by not hiring people to cut your grass, for example, but then you’ll have to use the time you’d rather spend doing something else mowing the lawn yourself. Just as you could save some cash by developing a word-processor yourself, but heck, in the long run, it’s probably cheaper to let Microsoft do it for you.

This is economics at its most basic. Seriously. It doesn’t get any more basic than this.

This is an excellent argument and as Moren writes, it doesn’t get any more basic than this. But this only focuses on the economic transaction not on the social effects of such transactions. It is cheaper to let Microsoft create my word processor. But the problem occurs not at this stage. The problem occurs when I realize, for any reason, that I would prefer to have a word processor not built solely on economic gounds but with values of openness and transparency. Perhaps I would like to ensure that future developments within the word processor field have the ability to develop in a multitude of ways that neither Microsoft or anyone else has thought of today. Or perhaps I would just like to have Open Office on my computer becuase I like the name.

If we ony concentrate on the transaction cost argument (cheaper for Microsoft to develop than me) and we isolate the transaction and the product out of the wider context computers and communication then there is no problem. But this is unrealistic. I do not buy software alone. It is not useful without other products. Transactions are not isolated alone but a part of a system with economic, technical, political and social ramifications.

The importance of Free Software is not in giving the public free (gratis) stuff. It is in the ability for all users (via other developers) to access and control their infrastructure. In the same way as free speech is important not becuase I may one day have something important to say but becuase every day thousands of people are saying important things and one day I may just accidently happen to listen.

Confused Politicians on Copyright

Without being too cynical it is easy to see that politicians are struggling with online copyright violation. Even the terminology is confused – copyright violation is too difficult and most people will talk about file sharing and thereby confusing technology with law.

In Sweden, where computer literacy is high and fixed price broadband is the norm, intentional copyright violation through filesharing is rife. In addition to this the moral concepts surrounding these acts have been fundamentally re-interpreted. Due to its relative ease, low cost and widespread acceptance – illegal file sharing is not considered by many to be morally wrong. Some not insignificant numbers also argue that it should not even be illegal.

Naturally politicians are concerned. Not all are cynically using the debate to forward their own popularity – some are sincerely concerned about the rift between law and morality in this question. Swedes, believe it or not, are a rather moral bunch. Sure we have reputations for free sex, expensive alcohol and high suicide rates but this is no longer a true picture if you compare Sweden to the rest of Europe. What I mean by being moral is that Swedes are relatively honest and prefer not to cheat – so when the rift between morality and law is apparent it is a greater reflection of a problem in Sweden than in some other countries.

So the Pirate Party wants to abolish copyright, The Swedish Left Party recently decided to strive to legalize online file sharing. Now the Centre Party are calling for change in a recent report by their spokesman on Copright Annie Johansson (report in Swedish Pdf) on the future of copyright.

Their report is interesting in that they want to attempt a re-evaluation of copyright in order to make it into a fair balance of rights. The report is also heavily influenced by the concept of Fair Use and the Creative Commons system which is good on the one hand but unfortunately the concepts are misunderstood in the
report. The fair use system is not easily applied in the Swedish concept due to different legal cultures and histories. And the Creative Commons licensing system cannot go beyond the legislation in hand.

Are politicians weary about talking to experts?

Despite these minor misunderstandings there seems to be growing political will to discuss the purpose of copyright. This could become very interesting.

The cultural significance of Free Software

Finding new books is always exiting and I am looking forward to reading Two Bits: The cultural significance of Free Software by Christopher M. Kelty

Free Software is a set of practices devoted to the collaborative creation of software source code that is made openly and freely available through an unconventional use of copyright law. Kelty shows how these specific practices have reoriented the relations of power around the creation, dissemination, and authorization of all kinds of knowledge after the arrival of the Internet. Two Bits also makes an important contribution to discussions of public spheres and social imaginaries by demonstrating how Free Software is a “recursive public” public organized around the ability to build, modify, and maintain the very infrastructure that gives it life in the first place.

My only concern so far was that in the beginning of the book I found the sentence: This is a book about Free Software, also known as Open Source Software, and is meant for anyone who wants to understand the cultural significance of Free Software.

It is always disconcerting when people mix up free and open source software – to many the difference may not be important but when someone writes a book about the subject they should know that these are not synonymous terms. Despite this after browsing through the book – it looks very promising.

The book is available under a Creative Commons license (by-nc-sa) and can be downloaded from the book website.

Now, Can You Picture Me?

About time too! Fredrik Jonasson, a Swedsh artist form Jönköping, has released his new album Now, Can You Picture Me? You can download the album from (download it here) under a Creative Commons license (by-nc-sa).

Fredrik has been making music in different constellations all his life. The past 4 years he has been focusing on Phace O.S. a, as Fredrik himself puts it, “band of different and strong personalities”. But now, he figured, it was time to put 100% of him into a project and the result of it is his new album. It is his first solo album, but over 5000 downloads in just over a week say it will probably not be his last.

About the style of his music the artist says: “My only concern is to find my personal expression and I don’t care that much for fitting into a given genre. If I have to describe it, then I’d say it’s some kind of electronica with strong melodies. At least I’d like to think that.” And in the true spirit of Free Culture Fredrik says: “After all, isn’t that what it’s all about? To write great songs, regardless of which clothes you present them in?”

This is not the first Swedish musician to release under creative commons but it is a bit strange that Sweden has not produced many more than we have…