5.1 Open Culture: Open Access to Cultural Heritage

5.1 Open Culture: Open Access to Cultural Heritage

The concept of “open” has served different purposes in a variety of fields, from software to scholarly communications, to research and education, to science and culture. Generally speaking, the notion of “open” in these fields often refers to “making something accessible” without financial, technological, or legal restrictions that limit reuse. The cultural heritage sector currently lacks consensus around a clear open culture definition, but there is general agreement that cultural heritage institutions or collection holders should provide as open access as possible to their collections in the digital environment. In particular, a central tenet of Open Culture is that digital reproductions of public domain works should be made available for free and without restrictions. Open Culture harnesses digital technologies, the web, open licensing, and the public domain to provide free and open access to cultural heritage and enable its reuse.

Learning Outcomes

  • Define “open” in the context of cultural heritage and other open movements
  • Understand the role of public policy frameworks and institutional policies and practices in promoting openness

The Big Question / Why It Matters

Concepts and terminology from other open movements might need to be adapted to actually reflect the practices of the Open Culture space. CC licenses and public domain tools provide a global standard for making copyright works openly available, but the definition of “open” in the cultural heritage sector is not just about open licenses. Different Open Culture policies are important to grant the public easy reuse of cultural works.

Open GLAM Logo (black and white)

Logo of the OpenGLAM initiative, a community-driven project supported by Creative Commons.

Personal Reflection / Why it Matters To You

What is your institution’s mission and how might openness support this mission? What has been your understanding of openness so far? Have you ever been unable to access or reuse a work in your research or public engagement or for your own enjoyment? How do you think legal and policy frameworks and institutional practices might shape openness?

Acquiring Essential Knowledge

What is Open?

For the cultural heritage sector, Open, or “Open Access”, is still an evolving concept. The cultural heritage sector has developed different approaches to open. Some terminology has included the acronym “GLAM” to identify cultural heritage institutions most likely to engage in open culture: galleries, libraries, archives, and museums. However, institutions range in size and scope. And many collection holders do not fall under a narrow definition of “institution.” Open Culture and Open GLAM are used interchangeably in this unit.

Douglas McCarthy and Andrea Wallace, authors of the Open GLAM survey, refer to this challenge in their Medium post “Uncovering the global picture of Open GLAM,” noting: “The precise meaning of ‘open’ sometimes lacks consensus; it’s often self-designated and rather opaque.” GLAMs engage with considerably different forms of content and contexts, so it is not always clear what open should mean.

Generally, Open Culture or Open GLAM may be understood as the online sharing of digital cultural heritage material with as few copyright restrictions as possible.

For GLAMs and other entities working with cultural heritage, there are generally four types of content that can be made available under open access:

  • Digitized works stewarded by GLAMs whose rights have expired (works in the public domain), for example, the works by 19th century French impressionist painter Claude Monet;
  • Works and other original content currently under copyright and created by other people (e.g. artists, researchers, or members of the public) who have given their permission to share the works with as few copyright restrictions as possible. For example, a researcher that donates their manuscripts to an archive or an artist who donates their work to a museum; each providing the permission to release these materials as open access;
  • Works and other original content to which the institution owns the rights, for example, original research produced by employees or contractors of the institution in the context of an exhibit;
  • Any type of metadata[1] produced by the institution.

A narrow definition of Open Access for GLAM generally refers to the dedication of digital reproductions of works or other materials into the public domain. This means that the digitized versions of these materials are free of copyright restrictions and can be used for any purpose, free of charge, without permission. We will see more of what this means in Section 5.3.

Having a working definition of “open” makes it easier for users to understand what they can do with GLAMs’ digital reproductions. Open Knowledge Foundation’s explanation of open data, open content, and open knowledge in the “Open Definition” has become the recognized definition in the field. The Open Definition is summarized as:

“Knowledge is open if anyone is free to access, use, modify, and share it — subject, at most, to measures that preserve provenance and openness.”

The Open Definition also has a set of conformant licenses that abide by this definition, including CC0, CC BY, and CC BY-SA.

This means that the release of digitized versions of works and other original content can also be done under conformant licenses and tools that are included in the Open Definition. In addition to those mentioned above, these include CC’s Public Domain Mark (PDM) and Rights Statements[2] that clearly indicate that there is no copyright in the underlying work. This affirmation of open and free access and reuse of works is what commonly constitutes “open access” in Open Culture.

Additionally, cultural heritage institutions and projects might make available copyrighted content that they steward under copyright law’s limitations or exceptions, such as fair use.

black and white photo of wedding in the Netherlands

Archief Alkmaar Commons by Westfries bruiloft, Public Domain

This picture of a wedding in the Netherlands is in the public domain and has been made available by the Regional Archive Alkmaar, Netherlands. The archive digitized and uploaded this picture to its Flickr account with a Public Domain Mark (PDM). This means that the work is labelled as being in the public domain. When someone sees this picture, they can, for example:

  • include the picture in a book they are writing about weddings during the first half of the 20th century in the Netherlands;
  • include the work in a larger work, like a collage about great pictures of weddings;
  • print the picture as a postcard and send it to a friend for their wedding;
  • and much more as far as the imagination stretches!

Open Access practices and policies for cultural heritage

Digitization initiatives need financial and political support to be sustainable. For that support to exist, it is important to demonstrate the impact and value that digitization provides for the institutions, their users and the public. Open access policies[3] and practices help (1) make cultural content available to new audiences, and (2) ensure that the public can reuse cultural content, engaging with it in newfound ways. Open access policies and effective open practices around digitized content demonstrate the new value and impact digitization initiatives can have on institutions, and their audiences. Open access policies require institutions to be as consistent as possible regarding their approaches to copyright management and reuse options for their collections.

Legal and Policy Frameworks

Private and public funding is fundamental to support digital cultural heritage initiatives, such as digitization projects and the maintenance of content aggregators. Public policies and laws can clarify the role that GLAMs play in making content available, particularly for publicly funded institutions. These might be state-created rules that likely apply to the whole cultural heritage sector. Otherpublic policy and legal instruments, such as treaties, conventions, declarations, recommendations, laws, decrees, regulations or policies can be adopted at the international, national, regional, or local level.

A prime example of policy at the international level is the UNESCO Recommendation concerning the preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage including in digital form, published in 2015, which makes a recommendation for UNESCO Member states to support open access policies:

Member States are invited to enhance the visibility and accessibility of their documentary heritage through the outreach activities and publications of the Memory of the World Programme as appropriate, with investment in digitization of content for access purposes now being one of its key components. Member States should support and promote public domain access, and wherever possible, encourage the use of public licensing and open access solutions.

Policies can also operate at the regional level. The European Commission Recommendation 2011/711/EU on the digitisation and online accessibility of cultural material and digital preservation includes important considerations on the need to maintain reproductions of public domain works in the public domain. A 2019 report confirmed the soundness of this recommendation.[4] In 2021, the European Commission proposed a new common European data space for cultural heritage. Read our comments on the CC blog.

At the national level, policy can be interpreted to foster access, even when the policy may not directly target the cultural heritage sector. Such is the case with the 2013 US Executive Order on Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information, which states that government data in the United States should be made freely and openly accessible.

State, or even private, funders can help shape open access practices and policies. Increasingly, funders require that the digitized materials created with the funding they provided be released and available open access. Some funders require that the institution does a part of the copyright clearance work prior to applying for a digitization fund, which may signal funders’ priority for open access (and that they want to avoid the risk of copyright infringement). For example, in 2020 the UK National Heritage Fund published its policy on licensing requirements, which asks for CC BY 4.0 to be applied to original content created in the context of funded projects and CC0 or the Public Domain Mark to digital reproductions of public domain works.

While in some jurisdictions, public policies are more conducive to the mission of institutions and other collection holders, these legal frameworks need more work to align with cultural heritage activities and ambitions worldwide.

A growing policy concern relates to the conflict between a jurisdiction’s cultural heritage laws and public domain use, which often leads to unjustified public domain encroachments to the detriment of the public. Read more about this issue in two Communia blog posts: The Uffizi vs. Jean Paul Gaultier: A Public Domain Perspective (October 2022) and The Vitruvian Man: A Puzzling Case for the Public Domain (March 2023).

In 2023, Creative Commons kickstarted the TAROC initiative at a Roundtable in Lisbon. TAROC stands for Towards a Recommendation on Open Culture, and it is a community initiative aimed at promoting open culture as a means to achieve wider cultural policy goals. Read a short informational brief in the following languages: English, Shqip, français, español, 日本語, Türkçe, italiano, عربي, Bahasa Indonesia. Learn more about the recent work of Creative Commons and Open Culture in the Additional Resources.

Institutional policies

Policy development can occur at an institutional level. These are policies created by institutions themselves that will only apply to the institution and their users. Cultural heritage institutions affiliated with or part of universities, for example, rely on how their university policies define open access and push for open access initiatives. For these cultural heritage institutions, it is important that they align with the broader mandate for openness of their host institution.

Policies established by portals, platforms, aggregators, associations, and consortium initiatives are also important drivers for change inside institutions. For example, the policies established by Europeana in its publishing framework help institutions think about their own copyright management practices, their licensing decisions, and how they can increase their visibility in Europeana. The publishing framework gives more prominence to collections that are openly available.

Not-for-profit organizations and content-hosting business platforms can also devise their own policy. For example, Wikimedia Commons, the free multimedia repository of Wikipedia, only allows digitized works that can be freely used, modified and shared; as such they follow the licenses that are compliant with the open definition. Other platforms might encourage clear usage policies, such as Flickr Commons.

Consortium initiatives allow very different institutions to come together in a dialogue and share and review their own practices, skills and knowledge. In some cases, consortium initiatives are powerful leverage for small institutions lacking the resources to host and share their collection online. The work of the Connecticut Digital Archive is a good example.

These various approaches to copyright management and open access often get consolidated into institutional policies. Institutional policies include assessment processes to determine the copyright status of objects in collections as well as decision-making processes around what works and collections to release and under which conditions to release them. Policies end up varying greatly among institutions, depending on their size and resources. A small institution might not need its own written policy on its website to release its public domain collections on a third-party platform, such as Flickr or Wikimedia Commons. They might not have a website, yet they can still develop open culture practices. Such an institution ideally will reach internal agreement about the process and decision making around copyright and open access and document that agreement in an internal note or statement.

An institution’s open access policies must be consistent with its mission and the legal framework in which it operates. Decision makers must understand how their institution’s mission aligns with open access principles. How will the institution’s mission be enhanced by openness? And does the institution’s mission support an open and inclusive ecosystem? The answers to these questions depend on each institution and are therefore unique, but the work of institutionalizing open access principles with policies, agreements and practices has commonalities across different cultural heritage institutions, as we will explore in the next section.

Final remarks

The cultural heritage sector has an evolving definition of “open”. Efforts like CC’s Open Culture Platform discussions aim to find a convergence. There are many different types of works by different stakeholders that can be made open. However, an important baseline for “open” among these differences is that reproductions of public domain works should remain in the public domain. Policies at different levels support and help guide open access practices in the cultural heritage sector. They provide the normative framework — the set of rules and incentives — in which open culture can establish itself and grow. It is fundamental that these practices and policies reflect and speak to the institution’s mission.

  1. For a definition of metadata, see this Wikipedia article.
  2. Labelling tools such as Rights Statements did not exist when the Open Definition was crafted, but according to Douglas McCarthy and Andrea Wallace’s Open GLAM survey, Rights Statements include at least two options that align with the Open Definition: NO COPYRIGHT - UNITED STATES and NO KNOWN COPYRIGHT.
  3. An “open access policy" in this case, may refer to internal agreements and decision making around how the institution releases collections or works they steward or produce under open licenses and tools.
  4. Read CC’s public comments on the review of the Recommendation.