Monday, 5 December 2016

Commons are forever

This article is the write-up of a talk entitled Empowering users about their rights to use creative works I gave at the National Acquisitions Group (NAG) conference on 14 September 2016. This write-up is also to be published in the Winter edition of NAG's journal Taking stock - which is why it's a bit more formal than my usual posts!

Did you know that Selma, the film about an episode of Martin Luther King’s life released in January 2015, does not use his actual speeches? It is because of copyright issues.
Have you ever tried watching a music video on YouTube, and instead it showed you a message: “This video contains content from … who has blocked it on copyright grounds”?

Copyright is everywhere and even celebrities seem to get embroiled in infringement cases – in these conditions, how can we expect library customers and the wider community to know what they can and can’t do with copyrighted works, especially online videos and images?

Copyright criminal by Alec Couros [cropped]
licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA (Source: Flickr)

What role do libraries have to play in this?
Libraries exist to defend people’s right to enrich and improve their own lives, their environment and society. We library and information professionals make this happen by facilitating access to and the sharing of information, knowledge and culture. Therefore we should be helping our customers discover works they have a right to use freely, such as works in the public domain e.g. that belong to them.

The Commons are forever project at Newcastle Libraries
My role at Newcastle Libraries is within the Business & IP Centre. My colleagues and I are certified by the UK Intellectual Property Office to provide inventors and entrepreneurs information on patents, designs, trade marks and of course copyright. I often feel like people leave us feeling a bit scared about using intellectual property (IP), as we have to tell them to be careful when using IP that may belong to others. What I wanted to do is to invert this situation entirely, and instead tell library users: “yes, it's fine, you can use this without fear of infringement”.

What gave me the impetus I needed was the Carnegie UK Trust Library Lab programme, which aims to support innovation and leadership in public libraries. A call for projects was issued in September 2014 and I was lucky enough to be selected as part of the first cohort of Partners. Thanks to the programme I was able to access funding to develop my project and was supported by a mentor – artist and curator Dominic Smith.

The project became known as Commons are forever. It aimed to empower members of the public about their rights to use creative works that are free of copyright, e.g. in the public domain, and to in turn share what they create with others. It took the form of a series of events that ran at Newcastle City Library from April 2015 to Autumn 2016; the events being a mean of engaging citizens in learning about copyright and enabling them to be creative and actually re-use works.

Rebecca Moosavian and Cory Doctorow at Newcastle City Library
Image by Steve Brock under Creative Commons BY-NC (Source: Flickr)

“Discover and re-use creative works at your library”
Commons are forever was launched with a talk entitled "Copying – right or wrong?" with local law lecturer Rebecca Moosavian and author and activist Cory Doctorow. With this event we sought to both attract attention as Cory Doctorow is a well-known science-fiction and young adult writer but also to get people to understand what copyright is and the potential issues with the current system. It was certainly thought-provoking, with Cory Doctorow proposing that copyright on a work last only 12 years (compared with the duration of the life of the author plus 70 years currently!) with the possibility to be renewed but only by the creator.

Other events in the series were developed in collaboration with local digital media artists and focused on remixing public domain or openly-licensed works. There were an “archive cut-and-paste” session using images from the City Library's local history collections; a film remix workshop where participants re-recorded dialogues from public domain films; a live-coding session using sounds that have been published under an open licence... New creative works made by participants during the events were shared via the Newcastle Libraries' Flickr account.

We also ran in both 2015 and 2016 a photography competition called "We Love Monuments!" based on the Wikimedia Foundation's Wiki Loves Monuments but restricted to pictures of listed buildings and monuments within the borders of Newcastle City Council. Participants had to upload their entries to Wikimedia Commons, where all content is either in the public domain or under an open licence. They therefore learned about the licences and discovered Commons as a collaborative repository for such content. The pictures uploaded now contribute to promoting Newcastle's history and heritage on Wikipedia and engaged the community in making a record of the local area.

Old and New Newcastle by Alan Warriner - winner of We Love Monuments! 2015
Published under a Creative Commons BY-SA licence (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

From creative works to open data
Several of the events involved coding or other digital literacy skills – during the project we were able to test out these types of activities which now form part of the legacy of Commons are forever at Newcastle Libraries. Another part of the project's legacy is the work we have been doing around open data. 

Commons are forever was originally focused on re-using creative works: works created by others - the type that in libraries we facilitate access to e.g. books, images... But our library service also collects and creates information and content: we therefore wanted to open these up and get citizens to re-use them as well. 
We published as much of Newcastle Libraries' statistics and data sets that we could under an open licence on the Council's open data pages, and invited members of the community to have a play at our first mini-hackathon – Wuthering Hacks – in April 2016. We continue to work on updating and expanding the data sets we make available, and finding ways to engage our local community in using and re-using the information.

Impact of the overall project
  • 53% of event attendees who filled in a feedback form say the event has improved their understanding of how they can use open licenses and what the public domain is. (40% said they already had a good understanding.)
  • Before the events, 14% of attendees said they felt very confident about using work either in copyright or out of copyright correctly while 25% said they did not feel confident doing so at all. After the event, 36% now felt very confident and the ones who did not at all were 4%.
  • 53% of participants said the event they attended has contributed to improve their image of public libraries (47% already valued public libraries).
  • 86% of event participants strongly agree that the library is a place for the exchange of knowledge and sharing of culture (10% slightly agree). 
  • Through the project we have worked with three local artists, a local lecturer, a local photography group, a local arts and heritage project and the local open data community; none of whom the library service had ever engaged with before.

Mimi and Eunice sketch - Copyleft Nina Paley

Do the same in your library 
I believe opening up library collections and information and empowering citizens about their rights to use and re-use works is part of the mission of libraries and our role as professionals. Libraries should be part of the open movement as we have a similar ethos; librarians should be contributing to open source tools if we can and promote the use of open content, tools and resources to their local community.

To do that might be more of an organisational change: it is not just about empowering library users but about empowering staff, and changing the policies relating to library content to make it “open”.

Another lesson from Commons are forever would be: be cunning in your event planning – organise something fun and creative to teach something as dry as copyright!

And finally: do not be afraid, just try things and see what happens.

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