As any archivist, librarian, or web developer will tell you, the landscape of copyright law surrounding dissemination of digital artifacts is a rocky one. The process of facilitating a world with easy access to material must be balanced with a necessary level of caution regarding respect for intellectual property rights. No scale can healthily swing too far in either direction: Offering all content for broad distribution, without regard for rights status, is blatantly illegal (and deeply disrespectful to the rightful creators and owners of said content). But the other end of the spectrum—the end where all content is locked tight for fear of violating rights agreements—doesn’t sit right either, especially when the goal of an archive is to facilitate the widest possible open access to materials.
The CPC website, which gathers metadata about existing presidential collections, is an area where we knew we’d need to address rights issues from the very beginning.
Thanks to projects like the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), the notion of Creative Commons licensing, and specifically CC0 (“Creative Commons Zero”) licensing, is increasingly being accepted as the wisest route to responsible but open access. Marking material as CC0, “permanently surrenders copyright and related rights, placing the work as nearly as possible into the public domain, worldwide.” In fact, to participate in the DPLA project at all, descriptive metadata must carry a CC0 license.
To be clear (and perhaps to lower your blood pressure after reading that last sentence): The metadata we refer to is the collection of descriptive attributes that surround a digital object. It does not apply to the object itself.
As an example, lets pretend that Sox Clinton penned a memoir titled, “In Mice We Trust: Currency in Cat Culture, 1990-2000”. The publication itself is most certainly protected by restrictive copyright unless it is intentionally released into the public domain or under a Creative Commons license. But if an organization creates a metadata record about the publication, that metadata can be made available to the public under a CC0 license. That metadata might include something like this:
Title: In Mice We Trust
Subtitle: Currency in Cat Culture, 1990-2000
Author: Sox Clinton
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Format: Hardcopy, Paperback, ePub
When an organization signs on as a CPC site partner (or as a participant in the DPLA, for that matter), they agree that their metadata, like the fictitious example above, will be made freely available to the public without restrictions. All rights applied to the original object or content (be it prose, a painting, a speech, etc.) remain intact.
All this allows the CPC project to collect metadata, like the entry above, toss it together with similar entries (provided by a wide variety of organizations), and make them all searchable from one handy URL.
Here’s a wonderful blog post from Dan Cohen, Executive Director of the DPLA, about the choice of CC0 and the process of moving intellectual property assessments out of the legal realm and “into the [ethical] realm”.
My favorite parts of his writeup are the parts that call attention to the social contract. If we’re going to build something wonderful together (and we are), lets do it with the understanding that respecting the integrity of content benefits everyone. And information access and dissemination is unfailingly powerful.
What do you think?