1.3 Creative Commons and Open Culture

1.3 Creative Commons and Open GLAM

What is the relationship between Creative Commons and “Open Culture”? Explore the shared mission and take a look at the benefits of working collaboratively with the larger open movement.

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the importance of making content available over the Internet.
  • Explore the history and key developments that helped grow the Open Culture (sometimes known as the Open GLAM) movement.

Big Question / Why It Matters

Now that you know about Creative Commons, let us explore the connection between Creative Commons and galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAMs), cultural heritage institutions (CHIs), and other collection holders. How do Creative Commons and GLAMs interplay?[1]

As more and more GLAMs adapt to increasingly online audiences and users, they seek Creative Commons legal tools, expertise, and community support. GLAMs share a common goal with Creative Commons: to make knowledge and culture globally accessible, usable, and reusable. In recent years, leading institutions like the Smithsonian Institution and Metropolitan Museum of Art in the USA, the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands, and Denmark’s Statens Museum for Kunst, to name only a few, pioneered open access to their collections using CC legal tools, which helped develop recommended practices for the Open Culture movement. Read about the Smithsonian’s release of over 2.8[2] million images and data using CC0 in this CC blog post and three case studies featuring some of the pioneers of open culture in this CC blog post. The case studies are available in français, Igbo, Ελληνικά, Bahasa Indonesia and English.

Personal Reflection / Why It Matters to You

What is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about “Open Culture”? What role should Creative Commons play in helping GLAMs release their collections online? What impact can Creative Commons have on the cultural heritage sector?

Are you interested in joining the Open Culture movement? How might you or your institution get involved?

Acquiring Essential Knowledge

GLAMs are fundamental holders and contributors of knowledge and culture all over the world. From major releases of enormous collections to a handful works that bring unique value to the commons, GLAMs contribute a significant portion of the over 2.5 billion works that are accessible under a CC license or public domain tool.

In this section, we will explore 1) some of the benefits of granting open access to GLAM resources (collection items and GLAM-created materials) as well as the challenges that GLAMs encounter when doing so, and 2) a brief history of the Open Culture movement through a look at how groundbreaking institutions pioneered Open Culture efforts.

Cultural institutions, online heritage and the Internet

First, let’s start by asking: what do the various cultural heritage institutions have in common? What’s the relationship between these different institutions? Broadly speaking, when we talk about “GLAMs” we refer to institutions that hold and care for cultural or documentary heritage. They often share values and a mission to make the content (which often includes “works” potentially protected by copyright) that they host available to their users. Each of these institutions face similar questions about copyright at some point in the course of their activities. For example: are the institutions’ works and records under copyright and if so, who owns the rights?

Now let us explore how the missions of open movements align with the missions of these institutions. As repositories of works, cultural heritage institutions are entrusted by the world’s populations with the vast amount of humanity’s memory. Caring for and preserving this memory and heritage is a formidable task. GLAMs also serve as a key interface between current and past creators; they provide access to knowledge and cultural heritage that inspire new artists, writers, musicians, and researchers to create new works and produce new knowledge.

However, the vast majority of works that GLAMs hold are not digitized and remain inaccessible to most audiences, unless the institution undertakes resource-intensive digitization efforts and provides public online access to those digitized works. Making this great amount of content available to the public worldwide is core to the mission and responsibilities of GLAMs. The focus of many cultural institutions’ missions is to preserve and ensure access for researchers, educators and the general public to the heritage that they steward as well as the knowledge created around such heritage. But providing open access to digitized works is hampered by important challenges: how will open access programs be maintained over time? What are the copyright issues that institutions must be aware of when digitizing and making available their collections? How are these important rights and permissions going to be cleared, processed, and managed? What happens with the revenues formerly derived from licensing the rights in the digital objects? And what happens if someone makes a use of a work in a way that is disrespectful, harmful, or unethical? How are copyright or other reuse permissions and conditions communicated to the public?

While these considerations are significant, it is important to look at the broader picture: most cultural heritage institutions envision making knowledge more accessible, sharing stories, inspiring others, connecting audiences, preserving knowledge for future generations, and disseminating information and culture. What medium can accomplish this vision better than the Internet?

GLAMs have institutional responsibilities to steward collections, and this is frequently written in their missions. In the online environment, GLAMs may be more motivated to share their collections with broader audiences than to generate revenue from licensing images. When this is the case, GLAMs have a greater opportunity to increase the diversity of cultural representations by making cultural heritage content available and partnering with other actors in the digital environment that are working towards the same goal. Of course, this also creates tension: how are GLAMs going to financially sustain the work? How can they garner more visibility of the works they steward if they have to compete with other powerful commercial actors? Open practices can help address some of these questions.

Adopting open practices and openly releasing items from their collection help GLAMs effectively work toward their missions and enhance their relevance towards 21st century audiences. In turn, this helps GLAMs gain more recognition for their work, reach new audiences, and see their collections used in innovative ways, among other benefits. Many GLAMs aiming to responsibly share the cultural items they steward find that Creative Commons’ legal tools provide a good solution for achieving this goal, including when used in combination with other tools such as Rights Statements. These tools make it easy for GLAMs to communicate to users the copyright status of a work and whether they can use it and how.

The trusted position that GLAMs might have in their respective cultures presents a unique opportunity to build a more equitable, diverse and truly online global commons. In turn, free and open digital heritage, released using open tools, can help dramatically improve recreational, educational and scientific content.

In Section 1.1 we described the tension between existing copyright laws and the possibilities for greater sharing that the Internet enables. This tension is deeply felt by GLAMs wishing to open their content to online audiences. Often, digitization projects are hampered by copyright restrictions. Therefore, copyright laws, licenses, and tools, form an integral part of any digital project  involving cultural heritage content. It is very important to integrate copyright questions and considerations into everyday digital workflows.

By providing the licenses and public domain tools as well as copyright expertise and a vast network of peers, Creative Commons can help accomplish the goals of enabling better sharing of knowledge and culture.

We will further explore the challenges and opportunities of Open GLAM in Unit 5.

Open Culture: What is it?

Open Culture (or Open GLAM) is a concept, a movement and a loose network of institutions and people dealing with cultural heritage that work together to increase the number of works available in the public domain, grow the cultural commons, make cultural heritage available online without undue copyright restrictions, and help others implement open access policies to cultural heritage. As detailed in Unit 5, while there is no singular definition of “open”, it refers to important values, such as commitments to keeping public domain works in the public domain and ensuring cultural heritage can be accessed and reused in a wide range of new contexts.

Open GLAM brings some of the concepts and values of “open” movements to the “GLAM” sector.

“OpenGLAM” (all letters attached) refers to a collaborative initiative within the broader Open GLAM movement. OpenGLAM started in around 2010, when the Open Knowledge Foundation received a grant from the European Commission as part of the DM2E (“Digitised Manuscripts to Europeana”). Since the beginning, several organizations and networks like Creative Commons and the Wikimedia Foundation and their affiliates have been part of the conversation. 

In 2018, members of the Creative Commons community, the Wikimedia Foundation, and Open Knowledge began to revitalize the initiative. But as a conversation and network, “OpenGLAM” does not “belong” to any single organization; people, professionals and advocates can get involved through different ways and means

Open Culture: a brief history

In 2004, the Brooklyn Museum was the first museum in the US (and probably in the world) to pioneer adding a Creative Commons license to their digital cultural heritage works, as they explained in this Creative Commons interview.

The Open Culture movement has slowly grown since then. The “OpenGLAM” initiative was first hosted in 2010 by Open Knowledge Foundation (OKN) and depended on funding from the European Union. As part of that, OKN drafted the OpenGLAM Principles, which were established around 2011 and then revised in 2013, with some collaboration from other institutions, mainly those working in the “open” arena. You can read more about open culture early adopters in CC’s Pioneers of Open Culture, a report examining various factors that impacted the success of early open access programs launched by The National Gallery of Art (United States), Statens Museum for Kunst, and New York Public Library.

In parallel, other communities related to the open world such as Wikimedia communities were doing efforts in that direction. The first GLAM-Wiki event in 2009 in Australia brought together cultural heritage institutions, Wikipedia editors and volunteers, and members of Creative Commons to discuss how to fulfill their common mission: making knowledge available in the commons.

The GLAM-Wiki event produced a set of recommendations that partially explain the impetus for the Open Culture movement. At the time, institutions were uploading parts of their collections to the Internet, but lacked agreed-upon digitization and sharing practices. Some institutions, like the Brooklands Museum in the UK, claimed copyright over digitized reproductions of public domain works, or applied very restrictive licenses to digitized works (and some other institutions still do!). Institutions also released datasets and metadata under very differing use conditions. Many institutions lacked (and still lack) the resources, time, or knowledge to effectively digitize and share their works. Crucial to Open Culture conversations is an agreement on recommended practices for providing open access to content.

Read the recommendations that came out of the GLAM-Wiki event in 2009. What is your impression of them? Do they resonate with you? Is it possible to follow  the recommendations in your context? How might they be updated?

Soon after that event, different digital aggregators of cultural heritage organizations launched. The first one was Europeana, the digital aggregator of cultural heritage institutions in Europe. Other digital aggregators include Digital NZ for New Zealand, Trove for Australia, the Digital Public Library of America in the United States, and Canadiana in Canada.

These aggregator projects act as key advocates for openness. Europeana, for example, published documents like the Public Domain charter, a policy document that highlights the importance of the public domain. Europeana provides the infrastructure to share content from across all European cultural institutions; openness is  coded  as part of  its quality assessment for publishing content, as  stated in the Publishing Framework.

Since its creation, Creative Commons, its chapters and Global Network have collaborated with GLAMs, building open policies and shaping open practices to share digital collections online using CC’s tools. Several of these collaborations have further involved  Wikimedia chapters and affiliates, Europeana, and others.

These collaborations give life to Open Culture. In this brief history, we have summarized some of the key events that led to Open Culture as we know it today. We will take a closer look at a few case studies later in the course.

Why join Open Culture?

After more than 20 years of cultural heritage institutions providing open access to their collections, there is significant evidence about the benefits of Open Culture. Below is a summary of such benefits, which we will explore in more detail in Unit 5.

  • Increased goodwill and recognition.
  • Enhanced relevance vis-a-vis 21st century audiences.
  • Increased staff efficiency and better mission alignment.
  • Better return on investment in digitization and digital infrastructure management.
  • Increased online presence and visibility, thanks to integration into external interfaces, like Wikimedia Commons.
  • Increased research and new knowledge creation around collections.
  • Inclusion in educational resources, particularly Open Educational Resources (OER).
  • Sustained reuse and remix culture.

How to join Open Culture?

There are several ways in which GLAMs can join the Open Culture movement:

  • Become an advocate at your own institution, by having a conversation with colleagues.
  • Reach out to peers, and ask for tips and ideas. Peers can help you go from No Open Access to some Open Access.
  • Read case studies and get inspired!
  • Release a small portion of your collection openly and explore where you can go next!

GLAM practitioners, professionals and advocates or anyone interested in Open Culture issues can get involved by participating in some of the following channels of communication:


  1. Note: We often use “GLAM” and “cultural heritage institution” interchangeably in this course.
  2. The Smithsonian Open Access collection has around 5 million 2D and 3D digital items, to date.