By Ashley Evans Bandy on January 5, 2018
Metadata is the key to organization and providing access to digital and digitized cultural heritage collections stewarded by institutions such as libraries, archives, and museums. In an unlikely sharing of priorities, metadata is also very important for commercial websites vying for search engine rankings for their digital (non-text) content. As the number of images, videos, and other forms of audiovisual content grows, both online and within institutional repositories, the need for useful metadata will grow as well.
One element that is often overlooked is rights metadata.
Rights metadata is usually one element in a long list of ‘data about the data’ (e.g. title, creator, and date). Rights metadata states what the copyright status is for a particular digital object, which could be text, image, video, or an audio file.
Copyright can be complicated, and institutions operate within exceptions to laws on exclusive copyright such as Section 107 on Fair Use and Section 108 on Reproduction by Libraries and Archives that allow uses and copies of copyrighted work without infringement. Educators, academics, and researchers also rely on these exceptions. Perhaps because of the complexity of copyright and intellectual property law, the rights metadata on a digital object is often a long narrative trying to explain a set of copyright circumstances, a statement kicking the liability can down the road (to the end user), or a combination of both.
Without clear rights metadata attached to digital objects, issues can arise with discoverability, sustainability, and usability.
How rights metadata can boost discoverability
As a search algorithm or database query available to most end users cannot ‘read’ the content of an image, video or audio file, metadata (and any text surrounding the object) becomes even more important in making that object findable, or discoverable. It also can be critical for making a digital object more accessible, a different, but important concept (see How to make your website more accessible).
In lieu of searching content directly as you would with text, now the name of the file, its extension, metadata, and any text surrounding it directly impacts its discoverability for the average end user. Included in this is the rights metadata.
The specific issue with rights metadata is usability and discoverability. The litmus tests should be (a) whether rights information can be easily found and understandable to the end user and organization generating the digital object, even if the digital object is removed from its original context, and (b) whether digital objects with a particular set of rights can be found.
If digital objects stemming from a collection or research are to be found and used across formats and systems in a way that is compliant with copyright law, whether in an institutional database or a search engine, paying attention to metadata standards and vocabularies can be helpful.
No time like the present
Because the sheer quantity of digital born content, digitized content, and non-text media will likely increase exponentially, the need for a clear and understandable way to communicate copyright becomes more pressing going forward.
Cultural heritage institutions, educators, and researchers are often already having to do copyright research for their own use; why not keep that information embedded in the metadata of the digital object being put out into the world? Rights metadata is arguably part of stewardship for a digital object and it benefits the provider and the end user by increasing discoverability and allowing the copyright status to be determined more easily.
While commercial websites may not have the same motivation for making their content discoverable, metadata is still key in having a search engine ‘read’ or index their images, video, and audio files. Rights metadata in particular may be utilized to protect assets or gauge return on investment through analytics.
Approaches to rights metadata
There are several approaches to implementing rights metadata. A few of the more common approaches included here are the rights element within a metadata standard, a controlled rights vocabulary, and licensing. For further background, the Getty provides a practical institutional perspective with a chapter on rights metadata in their online Introduction to Metadata publication which includes helpful examples, explanations and best practices for maintenance.
Standards and the rights element
Most metadata structure standards or ‘schemas’ used by cultural institutions already have a rights element, for example the “dc:rights” element in Dublin Core. Schema.org, a metadata standard more often used for content meant solely for the visible web, also has elements for rights such as “copyrightHolder” and “copyrightYear.” Pick a standard — METS, VRA Core, or EAD for example —and it probably has a rights element. These elements are singular and simple, yet they are meant to reflect all the information needed to understand the copyright situation for a digital object.
The rights metadata element has been waiting for a standardized value or vocabulary to replace the narratives and confusing legal jargon that often fills it.
With handling content for an institution, one option that is beginning to gain traction is Rights Statements, which is meant to streamline rights statements to twelve variable metadata values with URIs that can easily be added to a rights metadata structure element. The Rights Statements URIs provides a “click the link for further explanation” approach where the explanation is already provided for you. Rights Statements was collaboratively developed between Europeana and Digital Public Library of America and is intended to simplify the process of communicating rights for cultural heritage institutions.
Creative Commons Licenses are perhaps best known for attaching a human readable copyright license to a digital object, but also offer the CC REL, or Creative Commons Rights Expression Language, which is machine readable and fits within a metadata structure standard such as Dublin Core. Creative Commons has several licenses with variations, for example “Public Domain” can be specified further with “No Rights Reserved” or “No Known Copyright.” It should be noted that Rights Statements mentioned above function as a metadata value for institutions and is intended to work side by side with Creative Commons Licenses, which is intended for just about anyone and everyone.
Know your rights, then communicate them clearly
Regardless of the approach, institution, or intended end user, the purpose of rights metadata is primarily to make the rights for a digital object clearer and simpler for both humans and machines to read so that digital objects are more useable for all. For all the reasons stated previously, rights metadata may become expected as part of responsible stewardship of digital cultural heritage and may become just as important as all the other metadata attached to a digital object for usability and discoverability.
Main photo (entitled Metadata) used courtesy of Flickr user gabitogol– used under the CCO Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. (source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/19499961@N00/6588259005) Image cropped for content.
Magnifying glass image courtesy of Yury Tarasievich, used under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication (source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Doomsday_Clock_minus_3.png)
Clock image courtesy of Yury Tarasievich, used under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication (source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Doomsday_Clock_minus_3.png)
Bullhorn image used under the CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication (source: https://pixabay.com/en/bullhorn-communication-megaphone-2029539/)
*Remember! Do your research and be sure you have the rights or know who does. Contact the official legal counsel at your institution if necessary before you add metadata stating rights information.
- Copyright Clearance Center (https://creativecommons.org/)
- Creative Commons (https://creativecommons.org/)
- Digital Public Library of America (https://dp.la/)
- Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (http://www.dublincore.org/)
- Europeana Collections (https://www.europeana.eu/portal/en)
- How to make your website accessible, by Lucian Tucker (http://humtech.ucla.edu/bestpractice/make-website-accessible/)
- Introduction to Metadata, Chapter 4: Rights Metadata Made Simple, by Maureen Whalen (http://www.getty.edu/publications/intrometadata/rights-metadata/)
- Rights Statements (http://rightsstatements.org/en/)
- U.S. Copyright Office (https://www.copyright.gov/)
- U.S. Copyright Section 106. Exclusive rights in copyrighted works (https://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#106)
- U.S. Copyright Section 107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use (https://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#107)
- U.S. Copyright Section 108. Limitations on exclusive rights: Reproduction by libraries and archives (https://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#108)