Te Papa Joins the Commons

People at Te Papa have been thinking about Creative Commons licensing for a while now. As our national museum, Te Papa is the kaitiaki of an incredible range of artistic, scientific and cultural items, including paintings, photos, objects, specimens articles and over thirty thousand Taonga Māori treasures.

Kea, Nestor notabilis collected September 1987, Otira, Westland, New Zealand. Reproduced courtesy of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 licence. (OR.023944)

A decade ago, these collections were difficult for most New Zealanders to access, especially for those who lived outside of Wellington. Since then, the team at Te Papa has been working on digitising their collection of over 2 million items. In 2005, after years of work, Te Papa launched Collections Online, a search engine for Te Papa’s collections; it was relaunched in its current format in 2009.

As Adrian Kingston, Collections Information Manager for Digital Assets and Development, wrote at the time, “Te Papa’s collections have been built over nearly 150 years and range from miniscule lice and molluscs through to caravans, 22m long artworks and colossal squid… A collection this diverse can create a number of headaches when it comes to digitisation.”

Some of these headaches are technical; others are legal. Before any item can be reproduced online, the team at Te Papa have to figure out if they have the right to do so. This can be an arduous process. As a result, as Victoria Leachman, Rights Manager at Te Papa, puts it, “our focus at Te Papa has been on accessibility, rather than reuse.”

The result, though, is an outstanding digital archive, currently consisting of over 200 000 objects. This is a fantastic resources for students, researchers and members of the public.

In a digital environment, however, many visitors to Te Papa’s collections want to share, remix and reuse the images and data they find. Recognising this, Victoria and her team have been steadily applying Creative Commons licences to thousands of items. The team, as Victoria puts it, has been “nibbling away at the edges of the collections.”

Little Spotted Kiwi by J.G. Keulemans, 1872. New Zealand. Reproduced courtesy of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. No known copyright restrictions. (O.009829)

In 2008, as an initial experiment with open licensing, Te Papa applied a Creative Commons licence to 21 audio guides for its Rita Angus: Life and Vision exhibition.

Since then, applying Creative Commons licences has been a work in progress. Because Te Papa doesn’t always own the copyright to its collections, the process of giving Creative Commons licenses can be complex. The team at Te Papa has spent six years researching the copyright on its images.

Te Papa itself also produces a vast amount of material. These images have been easier to license: So far, thousands of images in its Natural Environment Collections have been given a Creative Commons licence, such as Kea, Nestor Notabilis, above. Thousands of other works have been labelled ‘no known copyright restrictions,’ which lets users know that to the knowledge of Te Papa, the work has fallen into the public domain.

The team has already seen some exciting example of reuse, including posts in Dr David’s Winter’s The Atavism, hosted by Sciblogs.

Other works from Te Papa can be found in its Flickr stream. Te Papa also holds the copyright to a few of the objects in its art collections, allowing it to participate in the Google Art Project.

In addition to its images and artworks, Te Papa produces a vast amount of original research. Like other organisations, Te Papa is confronting the trend towards open access. In 2011, researchers from Te Papa published a paper in Scientific Reports on the “slime defence mechanism” of the Hagfish. The researchers licensed the paper Creative Commons BY-NC-ND, and made it available on Nature.com.

Lava flow from the eruption of the Matavanu Volcano on Savai’i by Thomas Andrews 1905-1910, New Zealand. Reproduced courtesy of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. No known copyright restrictions. (C.001444)

They also released, as the wonderful press release put it, “graphic underwater footage showing for the first time how the primitive hagfish – also known as the snot-eel – defends itself by emitting a choking, gill-clogging slime.” Because both the paper and the footage were available under an open licence, the findings were covered by news organisations like TVNZ and Stuff.co.nz.

Victoria and Adrian both acknowledge that there is still a lot of work to do. Currently, Collections Online doesn’t allow users to filter by license type, meaning that it can be hard to find content licensed under Creative Commons.There is also work to do in making it easier to download low resolution images for non-commercial use from the website.

Te Papa uses a BY-NC-ND copyright license as the museum charges for commercial use of its images through the Te Papa Picture Library.

There are also issues of moral rights, cultural rights and ‘orphan works,’ those works that are still under copyright but that have no obvious copyright owner. Victoria and others at Te Papa are working on addressing these issues, while respecting the rights of those who donate their collections.

In working towards open licensing, Te Papa joins a host of museums and art galleries from around the world. Notable examples of institutions using Creative Commons licenses include the The National Gallery of Denmark, The National Portrait Gallery in the UK, and Brooklyn Museum in the US. In May of this year, Walters Art Museum uploaded over 19 000 openly licensed images of artworks to Wikimedia.

If you want to learn more about Creative Commons at Te Papa, read Victoria’s post on digitising here.

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