Back in my November blog post, I wrote about exploring copyright and ownership in digital heritage. In that post, I focused on UNESCO documentation explaining the various policies related to digital heritage. As I promised at the end of that post, I’m following up with a quick look at some articles and essays tied to the topic of ownership, copyright, and patrimony in digital heritage. This is by no means intended as an exhaustive literature review (as I had foolishly suggested before I remembered I’m supposed to be focusing on reading for my comprehensive exams), but I do hope to engage with a couple of examples I’ve encountered through my studies of how these ideas are put into practice.

In her 2015 article “Tribal Archives, Traditional Knowledge, and Local Contexts: Why the ‘s’ Matters,” Kimberly Christen examines the ways in which copyright and Creative Commons licenses do not necessarily meet the needs of Indigenous people when working digitally with Indigenous heritage. She discusses how the Local Contexts project, and particularly the Traditional Knowledge licenses/labels addresses these needs. These labels/licenses can be used in addition to copyright to emphasize cultural nuances alongside the legal elements of copyright.  In particular, Christen highlights how important these Traditional Knowledge licenses are, particularly for Indigenous communities. She writes:

Almost all the problems that now exist in relation to intellectual property law and Indigenous cultural materials have their legacies in the uneven and unequal research practices that rendered Indigenous peoples as subjects for research and study, rather than collaborators and owners of the research outcomes and products…Tradition Knowledge (TK) licenses and labels are one practical way to empower Indigenous and traditional communities to define the circulation routes and access obligations for their digital cultural materials.

Tradition Knowledge licenses do the important work of trying to protect cultural heritage materials as they move into the digital sphere. There are a variety of licenses and labels under this system, and Christen demonstrates the workflow that can be followed in determining which one is appropriate for certain heritage objects/practices. While they do not carry the legal weight of copyright, what these labels do is provide crucial context about the digital heritage objects they are attached to, and that context is generated by the community and helps fill in the blanks that copyright does not address or acknowledge. 

Christen, along with co-authors Alex Merrill and Michael Wynne in “A Community of Relations: Murkurtu Hubs and Spokes,” further interrogates ways of attempting to ethically engage with preserving Indigenous heritage as digital heritage where laws, Creative Commons licenses, and other methods of legal/formal ownership fail to do so. Christen accompanied members of the Warumungu Aborignal community on a 2002 visit to the National Archives in Australia which demonstrated a situation in which copyright and ownership does not correspond with ethical engagement with heritage. The authors provide a specific example of how layering a digital element onto heritage can further complicate issues of ownership, copyright, and patrimony:

During this visit, the Warumungu expressed both tension and relief when viewing the images and documents held in the National Archives. The tension centered on the violation of cultural protocols observed by Warumungu people in the distribution, circulation, and reproduction of their cultural materials. For example, images of the deceased were displayed online with no warnings; pictures of sacred sites lacked any connection to the ancestors who care for those places; ritual objects were disconnected from their original context. In addition to this archival material, the Warumungu community received thousands of photos from former missionaries, schoolteachers, and researchers. These digitally returned materials posed a challenge because they could be reproduced endlessly, accessed more easily, and distributed without consent or consultation.

In response to these concerns, Christen collaborated with the Warumungu community to create a community-driven digital archive called the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive. The content management system for Murkurtu embeds issues of patrimony into its very design–”traditional owner” is in fact one of the status levels that can be assigned to individuals. Murkurtu also incorporates the Traditional Knowledge licenses described above in order to provide cultural context to archival materials–particularly ones where the copyright is no longer owned by the community. The CMS for the archive is now open source, and the creators hope it can create a new standard for community engaged, ethical digital archival practices for cultural heritage materials. 

Obviously, this is just a quick look at two connected instances of attempting to create an ethical framework for understanding and incorporating patrimony over digital heritage that may be overlooked by copyright and legal ownership. However, these case studies can be useful in imaging how, as a field, digital cultural heritage can imagine new ways of developing and creating community involved digital heritage projects while acknowledging complicated notions of ownership that are often skewed by colonialist frameworks.