Digital 'New Renaissance': Private Sector for the Public Good

Article  by  Samuel MILLER  •  Published 17.02.2011  •  Updated 17.02.2011
[NEWS] According to a recent report to the European Commission, the preservation of Europe’s cultural heritage depends on its online availability. But for that, the help of the private sector and a re-thinking of copyright practices are required.
 A report given to the European Commission has recommended that public-private partnerships be encouraged in order to meet the huge cost of digitising Europe’s cultural heritage. However, the preferential deals between private companies and the institutions whose work they digitise should have a limit of seven years. According to the report, Europeana, a digital library jointly funded by member states, should be regarded as the reference point for all European cultural content online.
 
The Reflection Group (Comité des Sages) was set up in April 2010 to advise the European Commission and other stakeholders on ways to make the wealth of European culture and history freely available on the Internet, addressing funding strategies and copyright issues, amongst others. The group, which was put together by Neelie Kroes, Vice President responsible for the Digital Agenda and Androulla Vassiliou, Commissioner in charge of Education and Culture, consisted of Maurice Lévy (CEO of Publicis), Elisabeth Niggeman (Director General of the German National Library) and Jacques De Decker (writer and journalist).
 
Their January 2011 report, "The New Renaissance", expresses the view that the responsibility of preserving culture for future generations ultimately lies with the public sector, and that control over something that belongs to everyone – European cultural heritage – should not be left in the hands of a few market players.
 
However, given the size of the task and the financial constraints imposed by limited funding, help from the private sector would be required to digitise the totality of European cultural heritage. Additionally, the contributing company must be afforded the rights and means to profit from its investment.
 
The paper recommends that policymakers at the European and national levels create “favourable conditions” for European players. These include, in the medium term, the creation of incentives for the participation of private funds through taxation, and the matching, via grants to participating cultural institutions, of public funds to the private amounts invested in digitisation. Europeana should be encouraged to build numerous public-private partnerships with European businesses.
 
But the involvement of the private sector must be subject to certain conditions. The contents of any agreement between a public institution and a private partner, says the report, should be made publicly available. The digitised material furnished by private partners should be made freely accessible to the general public in all EU member states, and should be of the same digital quality as that used by the company itself.
 
Notably, the Reflection Group expresses the view that the maximum period of preferential use or commercial exploitation of digital material in the public domain “must not exceed 7 years”: in other words, long enough for companies to benefit from their investments, but not so long that the public institutions would lose control of the digital content. This would more than halve the current limit observed by Google, which pioneered the mass digitisation process with the launch of Google Books in 2004.
 
The report says that when it comes to the cultural heritage of a multicultural and multilingual entity such as Europe, the fundamental question is one of accessibility; all of European culture must be freely available to all citizens of all member states.
 
This imperative also carries implications for the operation of public cultural institutions. Across Europe, the past few years have seen such institutions begin digitising their collections of books, newspapers, maps, sound and video material, manuscripts, photographs and museum objects, in order that they be accessible online.
 
According to the report, the type of accessibility limitations being put into place by the public institutions currently contributing material to Europeana include: watermarks on digital images to prevent their unauthorised re-use; the availability of only low-resolution images, with high-resolution available for a fee; and subscriptions to access public domain material. Other institutions clearly indicate that the content is in the public domain, allowing download for free as long as the user affirms that the files will be used only for non-commercial purposes.
 
When it comes to the preservation and dissemination of cultural heritage, the priority should be the elimination of differences between the licensing laws of each member state, as they will inevitably lead to imbalances in the availability of content amongst those members. Material digitised with public money should be made as widely available as possible, and this should be a condition of public funding. In theory, says the report, the act of digitisation should not entail any new rights.
 
According to the Reflection Group: “Many cultural institutions from across Europe claim rights on digitised material that is in the public domain. In other words, they assert new rights that would have been created by the digitisation of the material. The basis for such claims is, however, not always solid, and the situation may vary from one Member State to the other, depending on the copyright legislation of the country concerned. This can lead to a situation where digitised objects are protected in one country and not in another, which is particularly problematic in a cross-border context.”
 
The report also makes specific recommendations regarding “orphan” works, which are in copyright but whose rights holder cannot be found or identified. Given that a protected work cannot be digitised without permission, and that such a huge proportion of cultural works from the twentieth century, across all media, are considered to be orphans, the works represent a huge barrier to mass digitisation projects. These, combined with the works that are no longer in distribution or print, fall into what the report calls the “black hole of the twentieth century”. What, it asks, would be the point in an all-encompassing digital cultural repository such as Europeana if it did not include works from the twentieth century?
 
Thus the report recommends that a European legal instrument be devised specifically for dealing with orphan works, and that a registration process be adopted in order to avoid orphans in the future. Both national governments and the European Commission should promote the digitisation and cross-border sharing of works that are out of distribution, all the while ensuring that the rights-holders are the first to profit from the process. Furthermore, legislation must be introduced to allow cultural institutions a “window of opportunity” to digitise orphan and out-of-distribution works if rights-holders and commercial enterprises do not.    

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Photo credit: Europeana
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