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Intellectual Property and Access – a European Model

October 29th, 2009 · No Comments


Who could have imagined the Europeans, with their centuries of battles over land, wealth, and power, would set an example for the world of collaboration and sharing? While we Americans — smug in our democracy — tussle with issues of intellectual property, copyright, and royalties, the Europeans have banded together to create an unprecedented, free information resource. is a web portal to the virtually combined collections of one hundred libraries, archives, museums, universities, and other cultural institutions. Visitors to have free access to books, newspapers, letters, journals, photographs, drawings, paintings, maps, sound recordings, videos, and films. While it is currently a prototype, the European Digital Library (EDL) Foundation intends to present a business model in 2010 that will allow the site to become self-sustaining.

Here in the States, librarians and legal departments are too bogged down in deciding who actually owns the items in their collections to develop rich digital access sites. Fear of violating intellectual property rights ties the librarian’s hands while their institution’s capitalist administrators loathe giving information for free when it may be sold instead. There was a time not long ago when visiting a museum’s website provided access to digital images of much of the collection. Today, most museums present only a few images of select works from their collections. One (intentionally unnamed) museum simultaneously developed a new website and eliminated most of their online image collection. Consequently, the site is visually bland and the online visitor is not inspired to visit in person. It is an injustice to the institution. The museum’s director feared missing a cut of the profits from their works of art potentially gracing books, coffee mugs, and tote bags.

Administrators are not greedy ogres. The money earned from the collection helps to sustain the institution. Protecting the coffers is prudent in today’s world. Corporate sponsors are reducing their contributions or eliminating them altogether. Personal membership in cultural institutions is down. The jobless rates in the U.S. are shocking. The land of plenty is becoming the land of bare essentials. If a buck can be made by licensing the use of a painting for a t-shirt, more power to them. They need every dollar they can get. However, the backlash could potentially be very damaging. Without participation in the digital arena, interest in cultural institutions may wane and visitor counts may dwindle. Scholarship will surely suffer at the hands of restricted access. After all, isn’t scholarship one of the inalienable rights spelled out in our Constitution? Perhaps it is not explicitly stated, but free access to information and the exchange of ideas is essential to democracy.

Our colleagues across the pond understand the value of making information accessible and are betting the benefits of access will outweigh the violations of intellectual property rights. Be assured, issues of copyright are not disregarded or ignored on the Europeana site. Their current policy is stated on a Terms of Service page which acknowledges changes may be made pending a full legal review. In general, the terms of use are similar to other fair use policies. In a leap of faith, institutions all across Europe are generously giving their precious collections and their precious time to serve a greater communal good.

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Category: Licensing and Access