The Elephant in the Room: Content Trafficking and Curating the Public Domain


Bettina Cousineau, Independent researcher, USA

We close our eyes as we do it: content trafficking – the restrictive use of public domain materials in order to create revenue. An accepted and common policy, many institutions identify this use of assets as a “best practice.”

From here, it’s easy to curate public domain materials according to notional currency values. As open access is limited for some public domain materials – inadvertently or not – a sense of scarcity is created. If one usage costs more than another, an inflated value is assigned as institutions collect permission/licensing fees.

Fifteen years ago, when the photographic reproduction of museum materials was inefficient and costly, fees seemed like a reasonable way to recover costs. Thus was born a now controversial practice, and it has been carried forward into the digital age.

Clearly, this model is no longer serviceable. Is highlighting revenue really a “best practice” for institutions charged with stewarding cultural resources? How do we move towards “sharing”, not “owning”? Most importantly, as materials are opened, is the fundamental conversation changing?

This paper contextualizes recent advances in the open content movement, examines current shifts in institutional policy and forecasts how the use of social media techniques (crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, etc.) and community-centered involvement philosophies will create new models for free and open access to public domain materials.

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