[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):
- Published online (especially in high resolution, in a lossless format, without DRM or irritating intermediate layers like zoomify);
- Released (if still in-copyright) under a free-culture approved copyright license;
- 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.
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”. 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.