28 February 2010

Whose Legacy? Whose Ownership? Problems with CC Attribution and Non-Commercial

Creative Commons interviewed Shelley Bernstein, the Brooklyn Museum’s Chief of Technology, earlier this month. In keeping with the Brooklyn Museum's innovative approach to on-line access, they are creating an API for people to access all of their digital content via the CC Attribution/Non-Commercial license. Last year, Sydney's Powerhouse Museum did something similar when it put most of its digital images up on Flickr using the CC Attribution/Non-Commercial license. Our museum (the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge) has had all of its collections on-line since 1996, and these searchable records have been accessible under the CC Attribution/Non-Commercial license since 2009.

What we see here is the slow, but increasing, willingness of museums to recognize that not only are they but stewards of the collections they hold, but also that how their collections are used, and what is said about them, is not limited to their galleries and documentation systems. More radically, at least for a few museums, is the acceptance that their digital resources, like their collections, have lives and uses beyond their walls. We are constantly being told these days, at least in Europe, that each of our objects tell a story. However, what these museums have accepted is that each of their objects, digital or not, tell many stories, for many different communities and in settings far from the museum.

A few weeks ago I posted an audacious blog where I questioned the continuing existence of closed, regimented and policed Collection Management Systems in Museums. I got some constructive feedback, and some support. However, the outrage I felt at the continued existence of these dinosaurs did not seem to be shared by many of my colleagues in museums. The point of that blog was that these CMSs are not just an afront to contemporary use, but they are antithetical to the kind of sharing we see at the Brooklyn, Powerhouse and MAA.

However, though I clearly support this program of sharing, and have done vocally for decades, I do have a few problems with sharing resources with the CC licenses. In particular, I have problems with both the terms of Attribution and Non-Commercial.

My problems are not what you might think, at least not if you assume the usual response of a museum professional. That is that they might be concerned about how to police Attribution and Non-Commercial use, or that they are not happy about allowing derivative works. In fact, I have no problems with any of this and I am more than happy to allow derivative works, as I think this is the whole point of our resources anyway. What does worry me is that there are assumptions about Attribution and Non-commercial that do not fit well with the sharing of our resources in all contexts.

Of course the good people at CC have given all this a great deal of thought and these conditions are designed to ensure the rights of the copyright holder. They are also designed to be kept as simple as possible and to allow for shared use. But what happens when the ownership of a resource, or what it refers to, is more complicated? What happens when, occasionally, there is a very good reason for commercial use, but not others? What do we do then? Now in the area I work in, archaeology collections and their use by expert communities, these situations arise almost all the time.

Let's take two simple examples.

First, I have recently been imaging a collection of artefacts from a site in New Mexico. The images are reference images of my museum and we hold the copyright. These collections also have catalogue entries that are also written by the museum and, therefore, under its copyright. However, these records and images are being shared with the Native American community whose site these objects are from. More importantly, the objects were collected at the beginning of the 20th century under conditions that would not be acceptable today. Further, these collections are from an historic site that was occupied during the Pueblo Uprising (also known as the Pueblo Revolt) of 1680 which gives these objects a very complicated, and contested, colonial heritage. So, although the museum technically "owns" the copyright of these resources, the ownership of the collections, and the histories and descriptions around them, are much more complicated. Why should these people, whose patrimony is represented, "attribute"ownership of some images and descriptions of their cultural heritage to this or that museum?

You could say, in this instance, that we could just leave Attribution off our license, but that wouldn't do either. The problem is that Attribution within derivative works for this community would not be wanted, but it would for most others. Neither we, nor the community, want other people using this information without due recognition. The community too want to protect their cultural heritage from misuse and abuse.

The second setting also involves such source communities, or those whose patrimony constitutes the resources being shared. In this case, we have a conflict with the Non-Commercial license. Let's say that some contemporary artists from the community mentioned above use some images of the collection to develop forms of jewelry, pottery or basketry that is not now made in the community. They then go on to sell these objects because that is how artists make a living. Let's take another example. Some company takes the images we are offering on-line and develops a range of jewelry or pottery, made somewhere in southeast Asia, that is marketed in Europe as "native". Now both of these instances would be contrary to the license. In fact, the second would be illegal in the United States even without the license, but not in Europe. However, clearly these two commercial uses are completely different. In the first, artists are reusing their own cultural patrimony, designs or techniques that were developed by their own forefathers, or foremothers. We wish, in fact need, to guard against the latter, but would want to enable and endorse the former.

This is my problem with the CC licenses. For most "typical" uses, they are fine, but they do not recognize the problems when ownership is distributed, in many complex ways, across multiple stakeholders. These forms of ownership and use are common to shared resources within museums, especially archaeology and anthropology museums, but all existing licenses fail to recognize these forms of ownership and use. As well as speaking with the good people at the Brooklyn Museum, I would like to ask CC to also begin talking to those of use who work with diverse and complicated patrimony. Much needs to be done here before museums, and communities, can guard their patrimony from misuse and appropriation.

09 February 2010

When insanity reigns, someone makes a packet.

I know that I haven't blogged for a while, but I have been spending all my time tweeting for the past few months. I find that tweeting allows me to say what I want, in the very short time I have, without having to compose too much. However, I have been pushed into writing by a deep sense of frustration and even anger. I have been frustrated and angered by how we have all allowed ourselves to be bamboozled by a bunch of sharks peddling out-of-date wares for astronomical prices. More than that, how these bamboozlers have almost brought the whole system to its knees.
No, I am not talking about the bankers, though I certainly could be, nor am I talking about international corporations (don't even get me started!). I am talking about a small group of specialist software companies who wrote some intractable software for museums back in the 1990s and have been fleecing the museum community ever since.
I am not going to name any names here, that would be unfair and even foolish. Nor am I going to point the finger at my friends and colleagues who have bought, and continue to pay through the nose, for these "systems" (you know who you are). However, I want to say a few things about the roughly 8 to 10 major Collection Management Systems (CMS) which have come to dominate most mid-sized to very large museums for their documentation over the past 15 or so years.
First of all, a bit of background. Since the 1960s museums, or organizations supporting museums, have been trying to write the all-singing all-dancing CMS. Different groups started at slightly different times and in different places, but you can look up the work of the Museum Documentation Association (now the Collections Trust) in the UK, CHIN in Canada, or CIDOC at ICOM internationally. However, the Museum Documentation Association and CHIN were the earliest, as I recall. After numerous local, national and international attempts, all of which failed, there was created enough of a consensus, or at least enough of a consensus that could be imposed, to build some more or less stable CMSs. With these "standards", a number of software companies build some rather clunky CMSs using out-of-date or aging database methods and interfaces and began to sell. Oh, how they sold!
You see, museums then, and to a large extent now, are not very technologically sophisticated. I know that there are a number of exceptions, but the exceptions prove the rule. Museums, like so many large public institutions (health services, governmental agencies, security services, etc.) like big, expensive and largely unworkable systems to run their organizations. Museums are no different, so they bought these CMSs like they were hot cakes. Now, everywhere you go, at least practically every museum you go to, has one of these absurdly complex, expensive and clunky systems "managing" their data. The problem is that these systems manage very little. In fact, they provide very little service at all, often for thousands of dollars every year.

Here are a few deficiencies that I have found with these products.
1) When you buy one of these systems, you buy the structure of the data, "as is." This is regardless of the kind of museum you are, the size, the mandate, the audience and the collections. Of course these companies provide you with a service where you can customize your structure, to a degree, but only if you are willing, and able, to spend a vast amount of money. How much money? Often tens of thousands of dollars just to get a few fields to be added or changed.
2) The whole point of a CMS is to help the institution organize its information. That means that you will need not only some sophisticated means finding and organizing the vast records that these systems create, but also reporting the results in an impressive array of reports. Most of these systems, however, provide you with anywhere from two to a dozen fixed reports, mostly just lists, that you can't change either. Again, if you need another one, you pay, and you pay a lot.
3) We live in an age of the Web and sharing of our information. We all use, daily, systems that help us organize and share our information on-line with a whole host of different communities. One would think that our CMSs should do the same, but no. These leading CMSs provide only the most basic web modules and output systems. None can effectively link to on-line services, few have APIs and all cost thousands of dollars to add.
4) Finally, though I could go on and on, is the user interface. We have had over 40 years of HCI expertise built up in the software industry. We are all use to using quite sophisticated user interfaces on line and in our applications. So why are we, as museums, asked to pay tens of thousands of dollars, or its currency equivalents, and almost that much again each year, for a user interface that, frankly, I could have pulled out of my arm-pit in the 1980s?
Tens of thousands of dollars for what? An embarrassing user interface to an out-of-date application that hasn't even realized that the rest of the world is well into Web 2.0 and moving towards the Cloud? No thank you. I have been building CMSs for small to medium museums for over 30 years. They are easy, they are simple, and they can do a huge amount more than you imagined. More than that, they are very cheap and easy to implement and manage. You can go out tomorrow, buy yourself a copy of FileMaker Pro 10 Advanced, give it to your 11 year old son or daughter and let them build you a powerful, sophisticated, user friendly and web-savey CMS over the weekend. If that is too easy for you, join one of the two open-source CMS projects that are now approaching completion (CollectionSpace or CollectiveAccess).
I am calling on the museum workers of the world, "Cast off the shackles of exploitation." "Unite around the simple, the usable, the effective, and the cost-effective." "Free our documentation so that it can serve our audiences." It is not a dream, it can be done.