Content Liberation

[n.b.: this is a discussion about subtleties of English language usage and therefore the issues will be different or possibly not applicable in other languages.]

You may know the old saying:

“one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter

When we in the Wikimedia community use the phrase “content liberation” in front of those who look after original collections of content, they don’t hear “freedom” they hear “theft”.

[One of the idea-boards at the Chapters meeting in Berlin]

“Content liberation” is a commonly used phrase in Wikimedia-land to describe the effort to have media items (most frequently collections of old photographs):

  1. Digitised;
  2. Published online (especially in high resolution, in a lossless format, without DRM or irritating intermediate layers like zoomify);
  3. Released (if still in-copyright) under a free-culture approved copyright license;
  4. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons.

The emphasis in this effort is the publication and dissemination of cultural heritage that was previously unavailable, or only available to a certain few, so that it can be given a new lease of life – to set it free.

However for the gallery/library/archive/museum (GLAM) that owns the original physical object there is a corresponding and sometimes contrasting concern to that of publication – that of preservation. Not just preservation of the original object in its proper state but also the preservation of the context and proper ‘meaning’ of the object. Just as people don’t like to be quoted out of context, museums don’t like their works being used to demonstrate ideas contrary to the spirit of the object. The phrase that represents this feeling, something that I have been told countless times when talking about the value of remix culture, is:

“…preserving the integrity of the collection.”

So, you can see that from that perspective, when we in Wikimedia-land come along to a museum and ask them to “liberate” their photographs to Wikimedia Commons (and any subsequent users of our free-culture content) they might be happy for the increased publication but also unhappy about the potential for their photographs to be “misquoted”. It is their job, after all, to make sure people don’t just have access to knowledge but that they are given it in an appropriate and correct way.[1]

It is at this point that the phrase “but it’s out of copyright, you have no right to stop me using the image any way I chose once it’s been liberated” might spring to the mind of a free-culture advocate. I’ve tried it. Unsurprisingly, it’s not endearing…


[The content liberation army of the People’s Republic of Wikimedia
comes to deliver “freedom” to another museum.]

Imagine if you were in a political or religious debate with someone and they told you that you needed to be “liberated”. I am willing to bet my left arm (not my right – I need that one) that you are no longer going to listen to a word that person has to say. So, if we want to build relationships with content owners we need to give them the power to decide for themselves whether or not to join us. What we should not do is take their power from them by “liberating” their content, thereby forcing them into a defensive stance – a position where they are likely to stay in for some time.

Of course, this does not mean that we should roll over and acquiesce to the outrageous claims made by some content holders – such as “you may look at this 200 year old painting on our website but you aren’t allowed to copy it”.[2]  Nevertheless we need to find a more collaborative phrase than “liberate”. This is why the subtitle of the GLAM-WIKI conference was “finding the common ground” and the key phrase we tried to get across (and repeated over and over) was that we wanted to focus on “sustainable partnerships”.

I think WM-UK’s Brian McNeill has a very good added point too:

To sum up, I see “content liberation” as the ideological goal we aim for, but we have to live in the real world. There has to be a clear focus on reassuring those [who are] running museums and galleries that WMF isn’t out to steal their customers and eat their lunch – you have to convince them that making copies of work available is going to highlight what they have, and that only there can you view it in “eyeball Xmillion pixels” resolution. Reality is that the Wikimedia/Wikipedia pages for any art they have are going to rank far higher than their own archives. I’d say there is a degree of responsibility to refer people back to them, and encourage people to actually go to the physical premises. Sure, the “content liberation” allows millions who might never have seen a work to see a photograph, but there should be an effort to encourage those fit, able, and affluent enough, to go see it in person. What I take from “content liberation” is that you no longer need to go to the museum because it is online. That is most definitely not what I think should be encouraged, nor a realistic pitch to those who you want to share content.[3]

[1] This has particular resonance with the issue of Indigenous cultural rights (discussed in greater detail in my “GLAM-WIKI recommendations” blogpost – part 3). This is a whole huge area of discussion in its own right but it is something, just like Biographies of Living People, that I am positive will become increasingly important as Wikipedia becomes increasingly mainstream. More on this topic some other time.

[2] On a related note, I’d like to recommend that anyone who is interested in the “in-person copying policy” of museums (also known as the photography policy) should read this post by the suitably awesome Nina Simon (on twitter here) who is working on her book “The participatory museum: a practical guide” which I eagerly await.

[3] The fact that “nothing beats the real thing” is something that was also raised in my “GLAM-WIKI recommendations” blogpost – part 1. For everything from museums to zoos to football matches it is important to encourage those that are able to make real-world interaction with their culture that Wikipedia doesn’t currently do – but we’re working on it.

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6 Responses to Content Liberation

  1. Jim Croft says:

    Thanks for keeping the GLAM-Wiki dialogue going. A couple of more or less random observations:

    ‘Liberation’ is definitely not a good word to use in the GLAM-Wiki context. It suggests that the data is somehow being held captive against its will by some (insert derogatory adjective of choice) institution or curator. This labels or taints the institution and/or curators as intrinsically in the wrong and is probably not a good foundation for collaboration and partnership as one party owns the problem and the other party wants them to fix it.

    ‘Mobilization’is perhaps a better term. A word like this allows the problem to be attached to the content itself, and thus also the solution, whether it be technical, social, political, legal or financial. With the problem attached to the content, both parties are free work together on the solution unencumbered by accusation and guilt. (ok, so maybe this is a bit Utopian, but…)

    You are absolutely right in that in any negotiation, choice of language and turn of phrase is vitally important. The vocabulary of conflict, control and power has to be avoided.

    It could be argued that ‘letting the content go’ (not a good expression) does not in fact compromise the ‘integrity of the collection’; the collect is after all still there, as integrated as it ever was, telling the same story it always did. But by enabling the content to be associated with other content, it is able to tell new stories that will stand or fall on whatever evidence the combined content can muster. And the mobilized content and the originating institution will be able to claim their part in this story; in fact, they must claim their part in this story.

    Central to all this is the notion of the metadata that should always travel with content. This is critical for any scholarly work, and for any work purporting to be authoritative. At each stage of the information chain the user must know (or be able to find out) where the content came from, how it was created, by whom, when, in what context, for what purpose, with what caveats and limitations, etc. This serves much more than mere attribution; it provides the foundation for verification, accountability, reliability, and fitness for purpose, all of which should be of vital interest to the user (most of whom probably do not care, but it still needs to be there).

    As for the ‘real thing’, you are right, nothing beats it. But a pickled fish in a bottle is just a pickled fish in a bottle (even if it is a Coelocanth). For scientific collections at least, it could be argued that ‘the real thing’ is not the single object, but the totality of knowledge of many single objects from many institutions. It is all too easy to become awestruck by iconic objects – open a museum door and I am as guilty as anyone in wanting to rush in and check them out. But he the reality is most GLAM objects are not iconic. They are not even charismatic. They are just stuff. Interesting, useful, informative, vital stuff.

    • Sage Ross says:

      It’s not just scientific collections where ‘the real thing’ is not a single object. For any museum artifact, its value and its status as being worthy of preservation in a museum depend on the knowledge and cultural context that has accumulated beyond the museum.

      Thus, museums who subscribe to the expansive definition of “preservation of integrity” (applied not just to the physical object, but to the ways it is “quoted” as well) are essentially trying to take a piece on which culture has wrought its magic by giving value and context to it, and then trying to freeze that bit of culture at the moment of its addition to the museum, and from then on tightly control any further cultural developments related to the piece.

      So back to the word “liberate”: the suggestion of holding works captive against the will of the people who own everything about them except the physical objects (i.e., the public, for works that have entered the public domain)…that suggestion is a feature, not a bug, when it comes to institutions that ascribe to the imperial definition of “…preserving the integrity of the collection.” Fortunately this is far from universal in the GLAM world, and ultimately what will get those recalcitrant institutions to reform will the be the irresistible combination of peer pressure, public pressure, and generational change (and maybe a dash or two of legislation).

      As I see it, the purpose of using the term “liberate” in GLAM-Wiki contexts would be to get people working with collections that are already free in the sense we care about to start thinking of the more locked-down collections of peer institutions as unfree and in need of liberation/liberty.

  2. Sage Ross says:

    Liam, I’m with you most of the way here. I agree that new words to replace “liberate” are a good idea, and the missile photo shows exactly why. The legacy of imperialism (American and otherwise) has given the word “liberate” an ironic edge. Instead, how about “emancipate”. Remove the digital and contractual chains that keep works isolated and oppress new uses.

    “Emancipate” keeps the core moral/ideological message (the injustice of restricting cultural works based on physical ownership) but implies different agency and different scale. Liberation is when an army comes to break through the defenses, topple the government, and spread democracy at gunpoint. Emancipation has fewer negative connotations and is often used at the level of the individual and his/her wards. We can make the argument that GLAM institutions ought to emancipate their collections, but the power remains with them to decide whether and how much to emancipate (barring “Emancipation Proclamations” in the form of new laws or legal rulings).

  3. Nina Simon says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, and for the excellent analysis which helps me understand how conflicts sometimes arise between institutions and “liberators.” Ironically, some museum professionals have been exploring an opposite argument to the question of context–the idea art and artifacts should hopefully become decontextualized enough that they can be relevant in any situation. Mona Lisa has been co-opted for both the ridiculous and the sublime, and that makes her part of our lived experience. The more art in particular is contextualized solely to white cubes, the less impact it can have on anyone’s life.

    And by the way, I’ll be in Australia for a week in December, doing some work with the Powerhouse and up in Brisbane if you want to say hello in person.

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