The Britsh Museum is chock full of fascinating artefacts, even if the sourcing of some of those artefacts means their ownership of them is disputed. While that sourcing happened in different times perhaps (which doesn’t mean our current perspective can’t be different), in these times echoes of that can be heard in the form of digital appropriation.

Earlier this week the British Museum announced they had revamped their website. Part of the revamp is providing more and better digital images of artefacts. Digitising artefacts well is a lot of work and effort, and making them available to the public is very laudable. Especially as the British Museum says, since we’re now only capable of visiting from home.

Director Hartwig Fischer in the museum’s communication is quoted saying

We hope that these important objects can provide inspiration, reflection or even just quiet moments of distraction during this difficult time

Inspiration, cool. Let’s do. Jason Kottke wrote about it and posted some beautiful images.
I went to the BM’s site as well and browsed. Then I came across this artefact:

Screenshot of the British Museum showing a 1725 etching, with copyright claim

I didn’t know the British Museum had a print of the water gates in my hometown!

Then I noticed an oddity: a ‘(c) Trustees of the British Museum’ statement on it. I have the image (remixed with a Mondriaan painting, by E after my idea) on my wall. This as the etching by A. Rademaker is also in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, and they too have digitised their collection and made it available. At the Rijksmuseum that image however is public domain.

The British Museum also allows downloading images. For ‘my’ image at least that download is of distinctly lower resolution than the Rijksmuseum download (the BM’s download is 365Kb, the Rijks’ 2.8MB). Here you see them side by side, BM on the left, Rijks on the right.

‘high-ish’ res BM image on the left, higher res Rijks image on the right

Moving on from inspiration to reflection then, as per the director’s words: What’s up with that copyright claim? The etching itself, being from the 18th century, is clearly in the public domain. Are they saying making a photo of an artefact is creating a new copyright? As Cory Doctorow also noted, that is a wild claim to make. Making a photo of an artefact to show just that artefact is not considered a creative act, and thus not protected under copyright rules, in the UK (PDF) and the EU.

The actual licensing terms attached by the British Museum to a downloaded image are Creative Commons BY NC SA, meaning only non-commercial use is allowed, if the results are shared under the same conditions and the British Museum is mentioned as the source. This is not an open license. It means that Jason Kottke who, inspired as hoped by the BM’s director, put images on his site is in breach of this license, as he also sollicits membership payments through his blog. Appropriate would be a CC0 license, or public domain mark. Claiming copyright on an image that actually is in the public domain because its subject matter is in the public domain on the other hand is digital appropriation.

A second question is why would the British Museum do this? A clue is the information shown when you want to download an image:

BM allows download for non-commercial use, but for commercial use requires a request

The distinction between commercial and non-commercial forms of use, I suspect, may have something to do with the effort of digitisation. Digitisation is generally very costly. Museums fall under the EU PSI Directive on the re-use of public information. In that Directive a possibility exists to temporarily make the exploitation of digitised material exclusive to a certain party as reward for help with the digitisation. Under this exemption tech companies can enter into agreements with museums and libraries to digitise their collections and have a handful of years before the results become generally available to the public. The fact that the BM publishes some images for the general public, at lower quality, is another potential clue. It’s my speculation, but it may mean that the BM tries to provide at least some publicly available material, while the exclusive exploitation rights for whoever is paying for the digitisation still exist. In other countries we’ve seen that material isn’t published until those rights expire, and it would indeed be a useful step to find a way of providing at least some access.

However, none of that has any relation to copyright, as the digitisation itself does not create new rights to license. It would I think better be solved by providing lower quality material as public domain material, while higher quality material is made available as part of the exclusive exploitation deal. If this is what is happening, again it’s just my assumption, using a restrictive CC license is the wrong instrument. If it has nothing to do with the digitisation process and surrounding contracts, but only to create revenue for the museum, then using Creative Commons licenses to do so is just plain wrong and digital appropriation that should be corrected.

I feel we have an obligation to re-use. The best way to keep things from humanity’s pool of cultural artefacts and knowledge available is by re-using and remixing them.

Most of my work is in ensuring more material becomes available for everyone to use. Such as open government data to enable socio-economic impact, with my company, or to allow for more democratic control in my role as chairman of the Open State Foundation. Such as creative output, in the form of images, text and music, in my role as board member of Open Nederland, the member organisation of the Dutch Creative Commons Chapter.

There already is a plethora of material available under open licenses. And while my work is all about adding to that pile and encouraging others to make good use of that, I find that personally I could be more active to re-use the cornucopia of human cultural expression and knowledge that is out there. In this blog I often re-use Creative Commons licensed images from others, and started adding images to my weekly reviews with that specific intent. But I could be much more aware of the opportunities re-usable cultural artefacts allow.

Last May, Elmine’s birthday gift to me was a set of 5 A3 sized photo frames, to fill up the mostly empty white walls of my home office. For months I didn’t get to actually selecting images to put in those frames. Browsed through the 25k of images I have on Flickr myself but couldn’t choose. Then I started playing with some existing images in the public domain or released with an open license, developed some ideas, but still couldn’t choose. Elmine broke the deadlock last week when she suggested to treat them as temporary objects. It isn’t about choosing the perfect images for my walls, it’s about choosing a few good-enough ones that speak to me at this moment in time. Our A3 printer will patiently spit out new images if I so choose.

So yesterday I decided on 5 images. Today Elmine helped me prepare the images for printing, as she has all the right software tools for it, and I don’t. And now they’re on the wall, joining two images already there.

Here are the images and their background as open cultural artefacts.

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The eastern wall presents three images. The leftmost one was already there, a photo of me drinking coffee in Lucca, Tuscany in the summer of 2015. A month of healing with the two of us in a year of personal losses. Elmine took this picture and she publishes most of her pictures with a Creative Commons license that allows non-commercial re-use. In general Flickr is a resource to find great images with an open license.

In the middle is the most famous footprint not on this earth. It’s the imprint of Buzz Aldrin’s boot on the moon surface, taken during Apollo 11 in July 1969. NASA has published and is publishing a wide range of images of all their missions, all freely re-usable. This includes the set of Apollo 11 images, with this footprint. I selected this because it shows how even the most amazing human endeavour ultimately is a sequence of single steps.

On the right is a remix of two images. The first image shows our city’s water-gate, Koppelpoort (1425) around 1640. The image is an illustration made by A. Rademaker for a book dated 1727-1733. The Amsterdam Rijksmuseum is putting tremendous effort in digitising all the artefacts in their collection at high resolution and making those images available for free re-use. They also organise design competitions to stimulate people to come up with novel forms of re-use of the art works in their collection. As an overlay I added the iconic primary colored planes of a Mondriaan painting. Piet Mondriaan was born in our city, where his childhood home is now a museum of his work. As Mondriaan died in 1944, his work entered the public domain in 2015 and is freely re-usable. The image thus combines the medieval and modern history of Amersfoort.

Those primary colors are continued in the images on the southern wall of my office, the one my desk is facing.

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On the left is an adapted page of Lego’s US patent. Patents are public documents (you get commercial protection for your invention in exchange for publishing how it works and thus adding to the world’s pool of knowledge). Patent offices publish patents and Google makes them searchable. So you can search for your favourite invention, whether it’s a Lego brick, a moonlander, a pepper grinder or Apple’s original iPod interface, and take a page from the patent to hang on your wall. Elmine added primary colors to the bricks in the patent illustration on my request.

In the middle is the photo I took last week visiting the Groninger Museum, with both E and Y in front of a giant head in primary colors, in the Alessandro Mendini exhibit. The image is available under a Creative Commons license (for non-commercial and equally shared re-use).

The rightmost photo was already there, a beautiful gift from Cees Elzenga, a photographer and photo journalist, who was our neighbour in Enschede. It is a photo in the rain, at night, near Brandenburger Tor in Berlin, and it strongly evokes the gloom I encountered visiting the still divided city in the second half of the ’80s. This is the one image on the wall that is not openly licensed.

One image is still missing, as I loaned one of the photo frames Elmine gave me to Y temporarily, until her own pin-board arrives in a few days. She uses it for two photos her grandmother sent her, after visiting the Unseen photo exhibit in Amsterdam with her. When it returns I will use the final frame for another NASA image, that of an ‘earth rise’ on the moon, similar to what I use as a background image on my Mastodon (and Twitter) profile page.

As my friend Peter says, we have an obligation to explain. So others may follow in our footsteps of tinkering and creating.

I feel we also have an obligation to re-use. The best way to keep things from humanity’s pool of cultural artefacts and knowledge available is by re-using and remixing them. What gets used keeps meaning and value, will not be forgotten. My office walls now make a tiny contribution to that.