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Using CC Licenses and Tools to Share and Preserve Cultural Heritage in the Face of Climate Change

Licenses & Tools, Open Culture

On the occasion of both Earth Day and World Intellectual Property Day, which this year centers on the theme of Innovation for a Green Future, we’d like to underline the importance of cultural heritage preservation as a response to the threats posed by climate change. In this post, we’ll also share some insights on how Creative Commons (CC) licenses and tools, especially the Public Domain Mark 1.0 (PDM) and the Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication tool (CC0 1.0), can be used to help preserve, share, and enjoy cultural heritage. 

Climate change poses serious threats to cultural heritage 

Heavy rainfalls, floods, rising sea levels, untamable wildfires, droughts, and other calamities are some of the dire consequences of climate change, possibly one of the greatest challenges of our time. Besides the disastrous impacts on the environment and biodiversity, climate change also poses significant threats to cultural heritage the world over, in both direct and indirect ways.

Flooded Venice

The city of Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is under significant threat due to several factors, including rising sea levels. Image: “Flooded Venice” by Colin PDX (CC BY-NC).

Because of global warming, cultural monuments and sites, as well as objects hosted in galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAMs), face the very real threat of being irremediably damaged or lost. In 2015, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee acknowledged  that “World Heritage properties are increasingly affected by climate change.” Climate change has also been shown to contribute to drastic cuts in public funding for culture as well as to lead to a rise in armed conflicts, with the catastrophic knock-on effects of the destruction of cultural heritage. 

As the risk of natural disasters due to climate change increases, many institutions will face a damning reality: when cultural heritage is lost, a part of humanity vanishes.

Of course, climate change is not the only trigger for the loss or destruction of cultural treasures. All too often human error or negligence is to blame for heartrending losses, such as the 2009 collapse of the Historical Archive of the City of Cologne, in which 90% of archival records were buried in the rubble. Thankfully, they were partly rescued later. Another tragic example is the 2018 fire in the National Museum of Brazil, in which 92.5% of its archive of 20 million items went up in flamesAs the risk of natural disasters due to climate change increases and as governments shift their funding priorities away from the cultural sector, many institutions will likely face a damning reality: when cultural heritage is lost, a part of humanity vanishes.

Preservation can mitigate the risk of loss

This is why preservation efforts by GLAMs are crucial. At the heart of their mission is to preserve and provide access to cultural heritage to the public. Digitization is nowadays the most trustworthy, effective, and efficient way to ensure cultural heritage can continue to exist for all of us to enjoy, as recognized in the 2015 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage including in digital form as well as under the European Commission’s Report on Digitisation, Online Accessibility and Digital Preservation of Cultural Material.  

GLAMs, like the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., are embarking on digitization projects to help preserve and share cultural heritage. Image: “National Gallery of Art” by Phil Roeder (CC BY).

Unfortunately, most copyright laws give GLAMs major headaches when it comes to digitizing the works restricted by copyright in their collections for both preservation and online accessibility. Why? Digitization is an act of reproduction, and under copyright law, this act is the prerogative of the copyright owner, unless an exception applies. Unfortunately, exceptions are all too narrow, unclear, and rare. A recent World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) International Conference on Copyright Limitations and Exceptions for Libraries, Archives, Museums, and Educational & Research Institutions made evident the unacceptably skewed balance of the copyright system towards the copyright owner to the detriment of those institutions that care for and help interpret, understand, and share cultural heritage. 

This is the reason CC signed the open letter prepared by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), among others, calling on WIPO to urgently create an international legal instrument with clear rules allowing the preservation of cultural heritage collections. 

Openly sharing collections online with CC’s licenses and tools

Digitized cultural heritage material should be held for preservation purposes but should also be made available online as widely as possible, in order to allow the broadest and most unfettered access to culture. CC is engaged in groundbreaking work in the OpenGLAM space, helping cultural heritage institutions achieve their public interest mission by releasing their content through standard open licenses and tools, as well as offering training on their use, such as through the Creative Commons Certificate.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as the “Blue Mosque” in Istanbul, Turkey is just one UNESCO World Heritage Site threatened by climate change. Image: “Sultan Ahmed Mosque” by Konevi (CC0).

CC licenses and tools, including CC0, are the easiest and simplest means to communicate to the public what uses can be made of the digital cultural heritage objects and to facilitate wide dissemination of culture. They are becoming the standard for GLAMs that are “opening up” their collections on the internet, helping overcome barriers erected by copyright law and enabling broad reuse.* For material in the public domain, CC offers the PDM, which makes it easy for GLAMs to indicate to users the public domain status of the digital objects made available online. 

GLAMs are entrusted by the world’s population with a vast amount of humanity’s memory—digitizing that memory and using the right legal tools can and should be done.

In connection with the launch of the Smithsonian Open Access initiative in February 2020, CC recalled that GLAMs, as repositories of creative works worldwide, are entrusted by the world’s population with a vast amount of humanity’s memory. Therefore, digitizing that memory and using the right legal tools can and should be done. CC has a solid background in supporting the creation, adoption, and implementation of open policies and projects with cultural heritage institutions, including the MET, Europeana, the Tate, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Auckland Museum, the Rijksmuseum, Wikimedia, and the Brooklyn Museum.

We will continue to explore how best to support GLAMs across the world as they open up their collections, helping them navigate the multiple layers of legal and policy issues with the aim of enabling universal access and participation in culture on the broadest terms possible. We will also keep on pushing for copyright policy change to ensure GLAMs can legally and freely preserve the cultural heritage in their collections, notably as a means to confront the risks posed by climate change. 

For guidance on implementing an open access policy or using CC’s legal tools including CC0, PDM, and our licenses for the preservation and sharing of cultural heritage, please contact us at—we’re here to help.

*Creative Commons licenses (including CC0) should only be applied to digitized cultural heritage material by or with authorization of the copyright owner(s). Doing so ensures the public that both the underlying work and the digital surrogate (in which the digitizing institution may hold copyright) are free for reuse worldwide. CC licenses should only be applied to works under copyright, not to those whose term of protection has lapsed worldwide. The PDM should only be applied to very old works that are out of copyright and in the public domain worldwide. 

Posted 26 April 2020