Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Copyright and licenses are a detraction when building a relation between the WMF and GLAM

A whole lot of bad publicity is the result of the controversy between some in the WMF projects and the London based National Portrait Gallery. Bad publicity because the crowds have been aroused to storm the ivory towers of the NPG with pitchforks, bad publicity because what should be natural partners are forced into opposing entrenched positions.

When you compare the WMF projects on the one hand and GLAM or galleries, libraries, archives and museums on the other they are starkly different. The WMF is first and foremost about providing and preserving digital information while GLAM are about providing and preserving physical objects. Both gain their social relevance by making information as widely as possible to the public.

The average GLAM has such a huge collection of material that they are always fighting to preserve and conserve their collection while at the same time registering, annotating and digitising their collection. The financial demands of such an endeavour are great and every revenue stream is needed to just maintain the status quo.

The information provided by the WMF is based on the work of GLAM. Most Wikipedias require citations and they are from publications that can be found in libraries. The originals of digital illustrations can be found in museums and archives and it is only when there are sufficiently annotated when we can trust them to paint the right thousand words.

The two communities are not far apart. It only takes a little effort and the “Wiki loves art”, Wikimedians are invited into museums and may make pictures, they are given special guided tours and lectures. When you ask politely, GLAM like the Bundesarchiv, the Tropenmuseum are happy to provide much of their collection with annotations in a format that satisfies much of our needs.

The most important thing when you talk to a GLAM is a willingness to listen. What is their aim, what are their issues, how do they get their funding. It is easy to argue that an object that is in the public domain should be available in the highest resolution. It is equally easy to argue that it takes money to preserve the physical objects. The need for preservation is a perpetual one and thereby is the need for money. The need for access to the physical objects will also be a perpetual one because the annotations and the provenance of the digitised material makes the digitised material credible.

When we illustrate our articles, we can do without the distractions of discolouration, folds and tears and because we live in a digital world, we can make all these go away with tools like Gimp of Photoshop. We are lucky in our growing community of restorationists because their work is fantastic. The quality is of the highest standards and several GLAM expressed the wish that they had the time to do as good a job.

In this modern world many of the GLAM have a presence on the Internet but they find it hard to gain the same relevance they have in the physical world for themselves and their collections. When they partner with us both our publics have the same need for annotations, have the same need for quality information about the world they represent. There is a reciprocal need for what the other has to offer. GLAM and the WMF are natural partners in this. A great example of what a fine restoration can do is “Know all men by these presents” by Coles Philps. The original that is held at the Library of Congress had a stain in the right hand side. The restoration by Durova brought this picture back to its original splendour and became a featured picture on Commons. It is now again of a quality where it could be sold as a postcard or a poster.

Yes, there is this thing called copyright but much of what can be found in an archive or a museum is either in the public domain or an orphan. For much of what is nominally copyrighted the GLAM do not know who the current copyright holder is or how to contact them. Many of the collections were donated to a GLAM but it is only recent that copyright is specifically addressed in the papers of transfer of ownership. Several GLAM have indicated that copyright is a cost and not a benefit and at the same time many of GLAM need to sell high-end copies of the material they preserve in order to survive.
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