Culture matters: going digital as a way to spread Europe's cultural heritage

Source: A. (Andrus) Ansip i, published on Thursday, September 22 2016.

It would be difficult to imagine cultural life today without any libraries, archives and museums. They are important to society, to young people as much as to old. One of the most important roles they play is as a guardian and preserver of cultural heritage.

Digital technologies offer new and innovative ways to make sure that their valuable collections remain available for present and future generations, online as well as across European country borders.

Europeana does some excellent work in this area. As Europe's digital library, it gives direct access to more than 53 million digitised books, audio and film material, photos, paintings, maps, manuscripts, newspapers and archival documents that, put together, represent Europe’s cultural heritage.

Digitisation becomes particularly relevant when collections are out-of-commerce, by which I mean works that are still protected by copyright but no longer commercially available to people. It is usually because the authors and publishers have decided not to publish new editions or to sell copies via standard commercial channels.

These works are not generally available in any other way.

But they can still hold great cultural, scientific, educational, historical and entertainment value.

They might also be newsreels, photos, unpublished materials, or works never intended for commercial circulation, like political leaflets. From a heritage perspective, they are still important. They need to be preserved.

The problem is often that these works are large and old. Making matters worse are the high transaction costs that cultural heritage institutions incur to clear the relevant licensing rights so that they can proceed with digitisation and disseminating works online.

I would question whether some of these charges are reasonable.

It can take a long time to look for the authors of these works and correctly identify rights holders. Case studies examined by European Commission experts, for example, show that it can cost up to €100 to clear the rights for a single book. In many cases, the institutions give up - and so authors are not rewarded at all.

Why do these administrative costs need to be so high? They are not an incentive for cultural institutions to digitise at all.

Given the gradual shift to digital in the production, dissemination and preservation of cultural works, the workload is likely to grow further.

Digital preservation is also a continual process, rather than a series of occasional interventions.

Some EU countries have addressed this problem by using arrangements like extended collective licensing, where the sheer volumes involved make it impossible to negotiate directly with all individual copyright holders.

But there may also be individual rights holders who have legitimate concerns about their works.

They should of course be able to opt out from collective licensing if they want to do so, and enjoy certain safeguards that protect their interests.

Today's copyright rules were made for the analogue world. They should be adapted to reflect the realities of the digital age and make it easier for archives, museums and libraries to carry out mass digitisation of cultural works.

Naturally, these institutions are well aware of the challenges they face, which is why the 'Shaping Access' conference to be held in Berlin in November will be a good opportunity for a wide range of interested parties to share expertise and experience in tackling these and other obstacles.

The proposals on copyright reform that the European Commission recently presented will be particularly relevant to the conference discussions.

In general, I would like out-of-commerce works to play the full and prominent role that they deserve in our cultural heritage. And for that to be the case, they must be available and accessible online.

This is why I favour a copyright licensing system that covers entire collections and gives rights holders full legal certainty across the board. The size of these collections should not be underestimated.

In total, Europe has 27 billion pages of archival records and 11 million hours of audio materials in museums, libraries, film archives and other cultural heritage institutions.

It is a huge cultural treasure that should not be 'locked in'. It needs to be digitised for future generations.

The European Union is much more than a free trade zone and economic community.

It is also a richly diverse cultural society. Awareness of our cultural heritage is vital if it is to be preserved for future generations.

Without digitisation, Europe’s cultural heritage may start to lose its relevance.

That is something we cannot allow to happen.

Another blog soon.