Creative Commons and archives at the ICA Congress

This week I am in Malaysia for the International Council on Archives 2008 Congress in Kuala Lumpur. Please forgive any typos; the jet lag is intense. I’m here because a former grad school classmate of mine, Anne Bast, has been interning with the ICA and arranged for me to come do some presentations with her about, what else, Creative Commons. It’s one of those “power of the network stories” that sounds too good to be true, but it’s not, because here I am.

Our first presentation, Beyond Copyright: Creative Commons and new approaches to intellectual property in the archive, was this afternoon. Miriam Nisbet of UNESCO’s Communication and Information Sector joined us to talk about some of the copyright and cultural heritage initiatives UNESCO is promoting on an international scale. Anne and I talked about copyright issues in archives from an international perspective, with an emphasis on the role Creative Commons licenses can play in helping to open up archival materials for both access and re-use. We covered a lot of ground in 45 minutes: copyright basics, copyright challenges in archives, intro to Creative Commons, how to integrate CC into the archival process, a look at some cultural institutions that are using CC, and UNESCO’s take on supporting and promoting the public domain. It was a lot for one session, but I think all the pieces fit together well.

I learned a few things at our talk. UNESCO’s work with archives and libraries sounds incredibly valuable, and apparently it is one of the top sites in the world for downloading free and open source software. One of the focuses there is on the dearth of material online in languages other than English, and UNESCO is working to promote and foster web development projects that will contribute to a linguistically diverse web.

A subject that came up during the question period was the challenge of finding legal advisers that can tolerate a little risk. Many institutions are finding that their legal counsel objects to any project that involves possibly copyrighted work and the internet. We’re starting to see some exciting projects that involve digitizing large quantities of archival materials and sharing them online, and some of them, like the Flickr Commons partnerships, involve works with uncertain copyright status and what some attorneys might find an unacceptable amount of risk. The organizations involved, including Flickr (which is owned by Yahoo), decided that the enormous public good that would come from having these large bodies of photographic work available online outweighed the small risk that a copyright holder might come forward and object to the use of a few images. The result is a vibrant new way for the public to engage with previously hidden collections, not just viewing and downloading them, but also tagging and adding other useful metadata. If archives are to remain relevant in the digital age, archivists must be willing to stick their necks out and take a few risks with their copyright-ambiguous collections. An archivist from Hong Kong said that her solution had been to take matters into her own hands and educate herself as much as possible about the law. This way, she could make a reasoned and informed decision, even in the face of lawyers who only say “No.”

Anne and I are doing another presentation on Creative Commons on Thursday. This one will be a workshop focused on the nitty gritty of Creative Commons: what it is, how to use the licenses, etc. I’m looking forward to hearing more from the participants, who really did come to the Congress from all over the world, and have had a variety of experiences to do with copyright and archives. Even though archives aren’t really my field, much of what I’m learning here is relevant to libraries and universities as well.