Why Europe is opening up its cultural history online

Europe’s cultural history is rich and varied, and it goes back a very long way. So it’s a boon for the public that EU legislators are trying to get as much of that culture online as they can.

This has been a good week in that quest. Yesterday the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted through a directive that allows anyone to access ‘orphan works’ – cultural works for which no copyright owner can be located. And the day before saw the digital portal Europeana invite everyone, including commercially-minded startups, to freely reuse the metadata associated with its 20 million digitized cultural objects.

The two moves are very much connected. Europeana is made up of contributions from a wide spectrum of museums, galleries and archives, with their digitized content spanning from prehistory to today. But, when it comes to adding recent orphan works to that pool, these institutions currently have their hands tied.

That’s because, in Europe, it’s illegal to digitize orphan works. The law sees anything that was authored as under copyright, with all the restrictions that entails (the situation is similar in the U.S., although libraries and archives get a limited exemption there). And if it’s copyrighted, that means getting in touch with the copyright holder if you want to use it. If no-one knows who that is, then tough luck.

So, by 531 votes to 11 with 65 abstentions, the European Parliament voted on Thursday to recognize orphan works for the first time. Content will be granted that status as long as a diligent search is conducted to try identifying the author. If the author later pitches up, they can then claim compensation for its use, but public institutions would only have to pay a small amount as long as the use was non-commercial.

That doesn’t mean museums, for example, couldn’t sell postcards of an ‘orphan’ photograph (the directive covers audiovisual and printed material) – there’s a special get-out clause for that, although the revenue would have to be fed back into the search and digitization process.

There are similar initiatives underway in E.U. countries such as the U.K. but, as with most things copyright-related, the European Commission and legislators take the lead and national governments follow.

Pooling culture

Europeana exhibition screenshotSo what do those public institutions do with their cultural collections? A lot of them make it available for viewing or listening through the Europeana portal. 20 million pieces of content is a hefty haul, and all of it comes with metadata.

That metadata is now free to use without restrictions, as it’s been made available under the Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain Dedication. That means it’s open to commercial use, and that, the Commission hopes, will lead to a wave of new apps and games for smartphones, tablets and the web.

Not only that, but the metadata can also now be used in linked open data projects involving, for example, both museums and the tourism sector. In short, it should allow new business models to emerge.

“We have a huge pile of cultural assets on Europeana, so that collection should be grown as much as possible (orphan works or whatever the relevant licensing is) and be exploited as much as possible, and shifting to open data lets us do that,” Ryan Heath, spokesman for digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes, told me.

But it’s not just the stimulation of new sectors that’s behind this drive for the opening-up of cultural data.

That’s part of it, for sure, and so is the desire to create a level playing field for businesses and institutions across the EU. To really understand the underlying motivation, though, you need to step back and think about the ‘single market’ idea as a whole.

The European Union exists because of the continent’s fractious history. It has a lot to do with keeping Europe competitive through scale but, on a fundamental level, it is there to stop member states fighting with each other. And the European project can only work if the EU’s half-billion inhabitants feel at least some sense of unity.

And one small but meaningful way to encourage unity is to digitally pool as much of Europe’s cultural history as possible and present it through a single, unified portal. As Heath put it: “We share a heritage and heritage is so important that we should all be able to access all of it for free online.”

I know this seems incredibly trivial at the moment, what with the euro crisis pushing the EU toward banking union and maybe even political – they’re no longer scared to use the word – federation. But, even if the issue of cultural metadata pales next to that kind of seismic subject matter, it’s absolutely part of the same picture.