The Archivist’s Nook: Digital Collections and Copyright – A Tough Boat to Swallow

Fair use? You decide.
Fair use? You decide.

Let’s do a quick exercise. Think back to your last Google image search. Can you remember what you were searching for? Can you remember the reason you were looking?  Can you remember what you found, and how you used it? I’ll go first. According to my search history, around 2 weeks ago I conducted a hunt for images of Monstro the Whale from Disney’s 1940 animated adaptation of Pinocchio. I’ll keep the reasons to myself, but you can see one of the results for yourself in this blog post. Final question – did you happen to investigate the copyright status of whatever you found? I’m betting not, and you’re far from alone. I certainly didn’t, and I know that you can filter results by usage rights. What’s my excuse?

Although copyright law as a subject cannot possibly be covered in a single blog post, we can go over some basic history. According to the US Constitution, the original purpose of copyright in the United States was to “promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” While the laws governing copyright have evolved over time (sometimes at the lobbying behest of our old friend The Walt Disney Company), that core principal, in theory, has not changed.

 

Digital Public Library of America
Digital Public Library of America

There is a constant push and pull between copyright holders and the public. Although the concept of Fair Use allows for copyrighted works to be used in certain ways without permission, it is generally safer (and cheaper) to repurpose works in the public domain, which brings us to materials held by cultural heritage institutions.

Museums, libraries and archives have a problem. While we’ve been really great at ramping up collection digitization projects, we also have a real disconnect between the amount of our material that is visible to the public, and the dearth of concurrent information about how that material can be used. When your Usage and Reproduction Rights metadata field simply reads “Contact us for more information,” (as many do) you may as well say nothing at all.

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) have long recognized this issue, and as a national digital collections aggregator, ensuring that rights statements are correct is of paramount importance not only to them, but also to the institutions from which their metadata and thumbnails are pulled. This year, DPLA launched RightsStatements.org in an attempt to standardize rights statement metadata fields across the country. Digital collections managers can now choose between a set of 12 statements that accurately describe the copyright status of their content.

To how many collections could you apply this statement?
To how many collections could you apply this statement?

When these new standards became available, we jumped at the opportunity to update our metadata. Using Copyright.gov and a simple guide from Cornell University, we determined the copyright status of our digital collections, and replaced our boilerplate statement with accurate information. Now users can browse by copyright status, which is wonderful if one only wishes to view, say, material that is in the public domain (such as the Irish Home Rule, Iturbide-Kearney, Fenian Brotherhood, and Treasure Chest collections, to name a few). So what are you waiting for? If you’re a librarian or archivist, it’s easy to get started on updating your rights information; if you’re a patron, start using our stuff! As always, thanks for reading, folks.

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