Copyright, findability and other ideas from #ndf 2009

I was at the National Digital Forum conference in Wellington earlier this week mingling with people involved in digitising and curating New Zealand’s cultural heritage material – people from museums, galleries, archives, libraries.

I was struck by a few commonalities between the cultural heritage sector (known as GLAM – Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) and the digital news media.

Both deal with sizeable repositories of digital content, for a start, and are grappling with how best to manage those assets, ensure their longevity and make them readily discoverable.

Here are a few thoughts on a couple of themes that I picked up on from the conference, which was held at Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand). The conference was nicely organised, had some interesting guest speakers from here and overseas, and was very enjoyable (my thanks to the organisers).


Since passive audiences have become active users of content, we’re all trying to figure out how to manage content ownership online and get a balance between commercial imperatives, the costs of digitisation, and the need to enable innovation and maintain a lively public domain of enduring use to citizens.

This is a big issue, and complex, and I don’t propose doing it justice in this post. I just want to acknowledge that it’s an issue affecting all branches of the creative industries and wonder out loud if we can’t jobshare the task of finding local solutions.

Five years ago copryight didn’t get a mention in a journalism curriculum. Now I feel dutybound to raise it, introduce Creative Commons, have discussions about how to use images found on Flickr and Google, and introduce questions to ask yourself when publishing your own work – who do you want to be able to use it, how do you want them to be able to use it, do you want to be credited, how will you enforce your rights and so on.

Libraries and museums, meanwhile, have to track down who holds the copyright on historical images and material, decide what to do if the holder cannot be found, very often seek permission to use the material, and determine how to indicate to end users what they are entitled to do with the material (without making them read dense legislation, clauses and exceptions).

Then there’s the people, like NZ On Screen, who are dealing with archival film and television material who also have to hunt down copyright holders, very often consult dozens of people about a single video clip (producer, director, writers, etc) and manage how end users interact with the material.

Meanwhile there are anomalies in the way we reference material. We think nothing of grabbing a couple of paragraphs from a report or speech or blogpost to include in a news story or essay or artwork, but we tend to feel differently about grabbing a few paragraphs out of an audio or video clip to use in a news story or essay or artwork.

Content ownership, use and licensing isn’t simple. Laws and regulations vary in different jurisdictions, how they’re applied varies even within jurisdictions, and they are often densely written and impenetrable to your average end user. Creative Commons stands out not only for giving content creators simple licences to choose from but also for creating simple icons to describe them that are instantly recognisable.

To extend that kind of simplicity to digital content management in the New Zealand context would be fantastic.

There was also a clearly articulated need for greater education about copyright/fair use issues.

There was a suggestion at the conference that members of the forum should work together on a coherent and simple set of guides/licences/icons for New Zealand.

If that conversation continues, my instinct is that the news media should be involved. I suspect we have insights from our industry to share, and would benefit from learning more about the issues and insights of others.

After all, journalists need cultural and heritage collections for research and should be linking to them for the benefit of readers, and I suspect the news media could learn a lot about managing archives from the GLAM folk.

Visual and digital literacy

Newsrooms everywhere are trying to get journalists comfortable online and competent at storytelling in visual, aural and written forms (video, audio, images, text) so they can get their product out to their customers in whatever format they demand.

Journalism schools are finding ways to do the same while still teaching traditional skills such as writing clearly, checking facts, attributing information, providing context, avoiding ambiguity and being fair and balanced and accurate.

It’s deceptively difficult, in my experience.

You think to yourself,  ‘I’ll introduce Flickr, that’s a useful resource’, then find yourself talking about how to shoot images, crop images, caption images and add metadata, search engines 101, how to use software such as Photoshop or Gimp, choose file sizes, understand compression and loss and file types, manage uploads and downloads, collaborate on content creation, use in-house content management systems, manage online accounts and profiles, understand privacy controls, host images for blogs, links, broken links, how to consider copyright and apply and acknowledge it in a variety of scenarios. Phew.

It’s not just newsrooms. The GLAM crowd face similar challenges of bringing their staff up to speed in these and other skills, because they too have to learn how to give their audiences what they want in a variety of engaging formats.

I get the feeling we’re all still finding our way and could use a bit of help.

Making our stuff findable

We can build beautiful, rich websites till the cows come home but they’re no good to anyone if people can’t easily find all that lovely content lurking beneath the homepage. That’s as true for news websites as it is for cultural archives and exhibitions, and it’s a topic that arose often in conversation at the NDF conference.

I’ve been cooling on destination websites for a while. You need to have a destination website, of course, but you need even more to have your content out where your audience is so they can trip over it often and usefully.

I often think it would be nice to create a website from the premise that you publish content all over the web and use the home site to curate it, rather than aggregating/curating first and then pushing out from your home site.

Either way, the big deal in making our content findable is…

Joining the dots

We reinvent the wheel a lot online, and we duplicate content and destinations. That’s partly because we’re all separate organisations doing our own thing. It’s partly because our stuff isn’t findable enough – I often go looking for information and come up empty, even though I know it must be out there somewhere.

But I think it’s also partly because we don’t try hard enough. We don’t allocate enough time for staff to go searching around topic areas, vet what they find, select the most relevant for users’ benefit, and think about how best to link to it.

News websites are perhaps the worst culprits. Some still don’t link out at all, to anything or anyone. Others have begun throwing in a few links to public documents and have finally brought themselves to link to, gosh, YouTube clips that they’re writing stories about. Others are doing a much better job.

But there’s often not enough evidence of news organisations behaving like they’re a member of society. There’s little thought about what a reader coming to a given news story might want to know about its background or what other questions it may raise for them. There’s little interaction with cultural, non-profit, government and other organisations with rich content that would be useful to readers.

There’s often little thought about how to provide useful links – links in stories and listed at the bottom of the page are a great start but how about ways to search other sites from the keywords generated by a news story, a way to book tickets to the show you’ve reviewed, a link to an online bookseller from a book review, a map showing the location of the story topic and a way to click through and explore the location.

Easier said than done, I know, but still.

Those are just a few things chasing round in my mind after the NDF conference. There are many more. We were shown some great sites and exhibitions as well, which I’ll try to collate into another blogpost in a while.