This year, I am a GA for Humanities Commons, a networking site for humanities scholars. As part of my assistantship, I help clear deposits for the Commons’ non-profit, open-access repository CORE. Over the last several months, I have gained more experience in learning the intricacies of intellectual property, copyright, and ownership. While the Commons’ focus is not specifically on digital cultural heritage by any means, since I’m working with an open-access repository at the same time as I am participating in the fellowship it has made me wonder more about the specifics of copyright and ownership in digital heritage projects. Throughout the fellowship, ownership has been a topic consistently referenced in lectures, but is still one I feel I need to explore further. We have discussed the issues related to ownership of actual physical heritage artifacts and sites, hybrid sorts of projects, as well as born-digital cultural heritage projects; however, it has not been the primary focus as we’ve been working our way through rapid development challenges and familiarizing ourselves with digital methods. In my next couple of blog posts, I hope to take a closer look at copyright and ownership in digital cultural heritage.

UNESCO first adopted its Charter on the Preservation of Digital Heritage in 2003 as a response to the increase of heritage being created or re-imagined online and the risks associated with changeability of the internet. In this document, under a section entitled “Measures Required,” “Article 6, Developing strategies and policies” reads:

Strategies and policies to preserve the digital heritage need to be developed, taking into account the level of urgency, local circumstances, available means and future projections. The cooperation of holders of copyright and related rights, and other stakeholders, in setting common standards and compatibilities, and resource sharing, will facilitate this.

However, this is the extent to which the document references copyright/ownership. Of course, one could defer to the guidelines that more generally refer to world heritage, but it brings up interesting questions about distinguishing a physical or tangible object/artifact/etc. from a digital copy or representation. In this instance, it seems that the focus is placed on the cooperation of the copyright holder of the initial heritage object, and it makes me wonder how this fits in with the rights and restrictions on the creator of the digital object.

UNESCO expanded some of the ideas laid out in this 2003 document in the 2015 Recommendation Concerning the Preservation of, and Access to, Documentary Heritage Including in Digital Form. Now, the UNESCO website encourages users to consult this document in relation to the 2003 Charter. This much lengthier document addresses concerns related to the preservation of all documentary heritage, specifically citing technology obsolescence as one of the core reasons for the need of such a set of guidelines. In its “Policy Measures” section, it is recommended that:

Member States are encouraged to periodically review copyright codes and legal deposit regimes to ensure they are fully effective, with  limitations and exceptions, for preserving and accessing  documentary heritage in all its forms…

This point seems fairly broad in scope, which is perhaps good when it’s trying to encompass such a vast body of artifacts and sites, but what does it mean for heritage/artifacts/objects that might cross accepted borders and boundaries? Whose copyright laws are followed? Perhaps this fits in with other policies/guidelines outlined elsewhere.

Additionally, in the “National and International” section, which is where I went after considering the above questions, it is suggested that:

Member States  are  invited to  facilitate  the exchange  between  countries  of  copies  of  documentary  heritage  that relate  to their own  culture,  shared history  or  heritage, and of  other identified  documentary  heritage,  in  particular due to their shared and entangled historical nature or in the framework of the reconstitution of dispersed original documents, as appropriate, which has been the object of preservation work in another country. The exchange of copies will have no implications on the ownership of originals.

This idea of exchange is particularly interesting to me, especially considering complicated histories of heritage being dispersed through colonialism. What does a framework for ethically sharing digital heritage look like? How might this complicate notions of repatriation (or how has it already)–will institutions view the sharing of digital copies as enough? I definitely want to familiarize myself with these policies further, and I’m interested in reading case studies where issues related to these points have arisen. 

Although things may change, I’m considering focusing my next blog on a brief literature review of research related to the handling of copyright and ownership in relation to digital cultural heritage to see if I can further understand the nuances of these issues.