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March 29, 2008

Open cultural heritage

JISC have announced five new digitisation projects, funded jointly with US’s National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Looking at the announcement text, I am slightly worried about the licences under which the resulting digitised resources will be made available. Yes, I know I bang on about this all the time but we seem to have a well ingrained habit in this country (the UK more so than the US I think) of publicly funding digitisation projects which result in resources being freely available on the Web, but not being open.  I, for one, would feel reassured if such things were made more explicit.

Now, the word open is used in multiple ways, so I should explain.  I'm using it here as in open content (from Wikipedia):

[Open content is] any kind of creative work published in a format that explicitly allows copying and modifying of its information by anyone, not exclusively by a closed organization, firm or individual.

This usually implies the use of an explicit open content licence, such as those provided by Creative CommonsFree content on the other hand, is typically available only for viewing by the end-user, with copyright and/or other restrictions typically limiting other usage to 'personal educational' use at best.

Based on the minimal information provided about the five projects, only one explicitly mentions the use of Creative Commons, one mentions the development of open source software and one talks about results being freely available (though as mentioned above, being free and being open are two different things).

Why does this matter?  Well, it seems to me that whenever possible (and I accept that there may be situations in which it is not possible) publicly funded digitisation of our cultural heritage should result in resources that can be re-purposed freely by other people.  That means, for example, that any lecturer or teacher who wants to take the digitised cultural heritage resource and build it into a learning object in their VLE, or an exhibit in Second Life, or whatever, can do so freely, without needing to contact the content provider.

Open content is what makes the Web truly mashable, and we should look to the cultural heritage sector for our richest and most valued mashable content.  Free content is not sufficient.

There is probably a useful debate to be had around whether the cultural resources produced by publicly funded digitisation should be able to be re-used in commercial activities as well as non-profit ones.  My personal view is that anything that adds value is fair game, including commercial activities, but I accept that there are other views on this issue.  Whatever, re-use for non-profit purposes is an absolute minimum.

To conclude... I really hope that I'm wasting blog space here, and that the conditions of funding in this case mandated that the resulting resources be made open rather than just free.  And further, that such a condition is already (or rapidly becomes) the norm for publicly funded digitisation of our cultural heritage everywhere.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed.


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With regards to the Concordia project, you can read more about it at: http://horothesia.blogspot.com/2008/03/concordia-grant-award.html

The Pleiades project releases its data under a CC licence - for example: http://pleiades.stoa.org/Members/thomase/my-news/batlas-grids-in-kml/?searchterm=commons

The project, I hope, will produce some great mashable content. I'm already reusing some of their previous work in my own at the British Museum.


Working on another JISC funded project, I would guess that the projects are making the material as open and as free as they can subject to the requirements of rights holders, who may impose absolute or financial restrictions on possible use. Since JISC funding is intended to produce research tools for the HE/FE sector, it is legitimate to create content which can be used less openly by others. Since the precise terms of use will be determined by negotiation with rights holders now the projects are going ahead, it is not surprising that some proposals have yet to define them. It is worth pointing out that the JISC standard licence permits extensive re-use within the education sector (broader than most CC), and the special nature of JISC's target user audience (academics) makes the standard CC categories hard to apply.

While it isn't a JISC-NEH funded project, Open Context requires use of Creative Commons licenses. See:

(This will see continued development funded through the NEH Digital Humanities Fellowship.)

We'd like to encourage use of the most open of the CC licenses, the CC-by licenses, and where appropriate and when ready, the CC-zero dedication (an important part of the Science Commons Open Data Protocol).

[Edited 2008/04/03: apologies to Daniel - I originally targetted this comment at him in error.]

@martin I tend to disagree with your suggestion that "Since JISC funding is intended to produce research tools for the HE/FE sector, it is legitimate to create content which can be used less openly by others" on the basis that it seems at least plausible that allowing widespread usage outside the FE/HE sector will actually result in significant benefits being brought back into the community. I confess that I don't have hard evidence to support this but it seems a logical and intuitive assumption to me.

Ditto licencing. One of the problems with a specific JISC licence is that it carries no intuitive meaning outside the sector - i.e. while pretty much everyone understands what a CC licence is telling them, pretty much no-one (including yours truly) understands what the JISC licence is saying.

Overall, doing stuff within the confines of the JISC, or UK academia, or even the UK significantly reduces the chance of beneficial network effects taking place.

I didn't say that, that was Martin in the comment after mine.....I pointed you in the direction of the Concordia project.

@Andy - I've found the layout of the comments confusing - the commenter's name is after the comment, but it looks as if it is before the comment. I see you've made the same mistake:-) Is it possible to change the layout or is this imposed by Typepad?

Thanks to Dan for pointing to Concordia. I've now tried to clarify the relevant licenses in a new blog post: http://horothesia.blogspot.com/2008/04/concordia-licensing-and-openness.html

Hear hear.

It's time to *stop* throwing public money at projects that render their data and deliverables unusable, pointless, and largely worthless by not adopting an appropriate open license to facilitate their re-use.

Saying nothing about licensing terms is a disingenuous cop-out that renders your content unusable by the law-abiding and the cautious. Adopting some half-baked and home-grown set of well-meaning words on the grounds that 'we are different' or 'a special case that [insert license name here] doesn't cover' is nonsense. Slapping 'All rights reserved' on your outputs is a crass and inexcusable waste of public funds.

We have a growing body of good open licenses, developed and supported by a growing community. See, for example, Creative Commons for creative works and the Open Data Commons for your data.

We've been (politely) skirting around this for too long. It's time to mandate use of suitable open licenses for all projects funded by JISC, Eduserv et al. By all means allow the project team to make a documented case for doing something different, but the presumption should be for CC, ODC, GNU et al, rather than for embarrassed silence on the issue.

I'll leave a tirade about the insanity of a sector-specific set of terms such as JISC's for another day... but suffice it to say (for now) I think that we tend to apply 'education only'-type restrictions by default... and that this is wrong, wrong, wrong. Sure, there can be reasons. Rights holders for commercial content tend to put their prices up when they reckon commercial uses are a possibility, for example. Some work on CC licenses we funded when I was at the CIE saw the presumption at the start tending toward requiring non-commercial, sharealike, attribution, and the rest. By the end, we'd persuaded everyone that the default was more sensibly CC-BY.

Make things as open as possible. Close them down incrementally if you have to.

We tend to work the other way around, and that's mad.

@BrianKelly: Yes, I think layout can be changed. Will look at template, but prob not this week :-)

To make it short: "Public Domain Works should stay Public Domain, also digital" :-)

Hi Andy et al

For the JISC - NEH projects open access is at a the heart of what the projects are trying to do.

For example, the PhiloGrid project is part of the larger Perseus project at Tufts University in the US, which has been blazing a trail in making content and data relating to the study of the classics openly available, thus allowing for a whole raft of innovative scholarly uses.


Perseus project director Greg Crane has also been involved in the "What to do with a million books" initiative - blue-skies thinking of what can be done if the fruits of mass digitisation projects are made available in the sense you suggest.


For other digitisation projects funded by JISC, we are currently exploring the best models for ensuring resource sustainability. In many cases, open access is the most obvious solution. In other cases, particularly where there is a high volume of content, other models are being tried out.

Somebody has to pay for the costs of disseminating, marketing and preserving the resources. The results of the current JISC Digitisation programme will give us a better idea of who this should be in the short to long term.

The JISC-organised Strategic Content Alliance is also undertaking research in this area in partnership with agencies such as Ithaka. It is worth noting that Eduserv regularly attend SCA events on intellectual property rights where we bring together visionaries and practitioners to help move the agenda forwards. Indeed the SCA are hosting a heavily over-subscribed workshop on sustainability models at the beginning of April


This forms part of a peer review of a preliminary study on business models used by the newspaper industry in the UK and US and how applicable these maybe to academic educational resources.

We will of course disseminate a copy of the final report to help steer our respective thinking in this area.

@Alastair Hi. Thanks for the detailed and +ve reply. Good stuff.

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