Permission Required?: Rights in Digital Collection Metadata

by Chris Stanton, Metadata Specialist, Empire State Digital Network

ESDN_logo_250.jpgIn just the few months that the Empire State Digital Network (ESDN)* has been in full swing, we've been making steady progress toward our goal of contributing at least 50,000 metadata records to the Digital Public Library of America by early 2015. To get there, we're working closely with libraries and archives across New York to build workflows for aggregating content and sending metadata on to our colleagues at DPLA.

So, as you might expect, we’ve been thinking a lot about rights in digital collection metadata. And, as you’re also probably not surprised to hear, we’re not alone in that.

Most recently, Rick Anderson from the University of Utah wrote an excellent column for Library Journal on permissions and the publishing of library and archival content. His discussion of the issues surrounding “permission to publish” will hopefully serve as both a wake-up call and a rallying cry for institutions throughout the country (and, if we have anything to say about it, most certainly New York!). The comments section includes a useful discussion that might even convince you to have a look at your own rights and permissions statements sooner rather than later (hint: please do this). 

Rights statements in our digital collections are often needlessly restrictive, placing an unnecessary barrier on the use of our collection material. To borrow from Anderson, we’re too often “asserting rights we don’t have.” Many institutions seem to be falling into the “prior written permission needed” camp when it would seem as though no such right to require permission exists. And, possibly most importantly, the courts have reminded us that we should rethink this stance (see here and here).

From the ESDN perspective, the discussion that has emanated from Anderson’s article has been timely. As we’ve been working with our initial data contributors, we’ve found that rights statements are tricky, they come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s complicated for our partner institutions. The ESDN metadata working group will be working with data providers this fall and formulating guidelines to improve the quality of rights statements in our contributed collections. 

Thankfully, DPLA and Europeana are working to ease some of the confusion and uneasiness. The rights labeling infrastructure they are working to put in place will help us to confidently and accurately assign appropriate rights statements in our collections. Best practices will be established and guidance on the tricky situations we’ve all encountered (think orphan works) will be provided. Please take a look at the relevant Knight News Challenge submission and this blog post from DPLA’s Emily Gore for further information about this important work. 

In the meantime, having a less-than-ideal rights statement won’t keep you from contributing your data to ESDN. In fact, we only require two fields for contribution at the moment: title and rights. Of course, it's likely that you’re going to want to include a bit more than that, but those fields are all that is absolutely required. 

Determining the legal status of collection items and assigning appropriate rights statements is not easy. This is a perfect opportunity to work together to improve data quality and openness through the correct assignation of rights statements in our collections. The three of us running the Empire State Digital Network want (and will eventually need) to address these issues, and we’re in a great position to do that right now.


*New York State's service hub for the Digital Public Library of America