5.1. Case Study 1: Reciprocal Research Network (RRN)
The RRN was established online in 2009 and covers the North West Coast of British Columbia. It is “an open-source, web-based, federated museum information system intended to provide First Nations, researchers and museum professionals with interactive access to worldwide collections of Northwest Coast and British Columbia First Nations’ cultural heritage.”7
The RNN base data set includes 534,259 items, object records and images derived from the process of digitization. It includes accessible metadata and many of the images are organized comparatively. Designed for researchers, who must sign up in order to access the full database, the RRN aims to facilitate collaboration and interdisciplinary research across local, national, and international borders and provide a way for communities to share information and pass on their values. The site may be found at https://www.rrncommunity.org
In the context of image archives, the question often arises as to access to and rights of reuse of the images. Although the RRN database displays images and accompanying data it restricts what content can be used in other contexts. This suggests, with regard to proprietary interests, that a dominant copyright regime prevails. The structural limitations of two related digital collections provide a further illustrative example to demonstrate that this is not an isolated phenomenon.
5.2. Case Study 2: The Inuvialuit Pitqusiit Inuuniarutait (Inuvialuit Living History) Portal
The Inuvialuit Pitqusiit Inuuniarutait (Inuvialuit Living History) Portal was designed to provide access to a small collection (the MacFarlane Collection) housed at the Smithsonian Institution. The portal is for Inuvialuit people and others to use and the database was designed to show how the Collection is a “living collection” by connecting data and museum objects to Inuvialuit people and enabling users to explore how the collection was shaped through historical attitudes, values and collecting practices. The site may be found at http://www.inuvialuitlivinghistory.ca
In recent years, Inuit communities have played an important role in the dissemination of their cultural heritage in debates and discussions concerning the politics of cultural property and intellectual rights to institutional and museum collections. The Portal grew out of the Intellectual Property Issues in Cultural Heritage (IPinCH) project led by George Nicholas at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. Using a problem-based research paradigm, this seven-year project worked to explore intellectual property and ethical concerns relating to “the rights, values, and responsibilities of material culture, cultural knowledge and the practice of heritage research.” The project posed questions and sought responses required for culturally valuable activities in the area of cultural heritage.
This website uses descriptions and images from the Smithsonian Institution. It provides information about the history of the collection, about the Smithsonian Institution, and about repatriation, ownership, and intellectual property rights to the collection. In addition to artefact records as well as video and photographs, the website includes other resources such as an interactive map related to the people and places within the Anderson River area from which many of the pieces originated.
In terms of copyright iconography, some images display a Smithsonian Institution watermark. In this respect, the Inuvialuit Living History might be likened to a knowledge archive: in fact, some of the information cards provided are copied directly from the Smithsonian and carry its watermarks or copyright notices.
The copyright page for the project specifies that copyright and other proprietary notices should be kept intact with any material used but does not state a reason for requiring this visual means of linking back to the project. Images with a Smithsonian watermark are used with permission of the Smithsonian. For commercial use, permission from the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre or other copyright and/or intellectual property rights holders is required.
5.3. Case Study 3: The Searching for Our Heritage Database
Focused on artefacts of Yukon First Nations origin, our final case study, the Searching for our Heritage database, incorporates resources for users all around the world. Rather than build a new database, this repository aggregates items of interest to the Yukon by reusing data from the collections of external institutions.9
The RRN is the primary source of resources and users can gain access to other institutional collections through the RRN. Since the RRN also facilitates the exchange of knowledge about collections and artefacts by allowing users to communicate with one another through its portal, this site serves indigenous peoples’ informational needs helping to fill out the picture of nineteenth-century life in the Yukon. The site may be found at http://searchingforourheritage.ca
; and http://www.tc.gov.yk.ca/museum_resources.html
Since the information in the collection is from institutions external to the Yukon, the availability of images relies on holding institutions possessing digital images associated with their object records. In the Searching for our Heritage database, each object record has been set up to have the appearance of a physical archival record. However, its images are not high resolution and, while the collection is large, many of the items lack digital images. Records from external institutions bear watermarks and carry copyright notices. Interestingly, concepts relating to content, navigation and information retrieval are presented in a manual, but the current manual does not contain any information regarding image or information use permissions. In this repository associated archival records appear constrained by predetermined program architecture, making the site difficult to navigate for end-users. It appears that their internal interface has been directly translated into the online environment and this contributes to a lack of practical functionality.
We have been exploring how communities are empowering themselves in the Canadian context with greater access to online tools. It is beyond doubt that indigenous cultural heritage digital content should be treated as one particular case in the domain of copyright protection laws. Our findings led us to consider the important question of access to digital collections for research towards repatriation and to focus on potential image reuse. We found it to be hampered by data quality, legalistic language and other proprietary notices all of which would constrain community-driven repatriation initiatives. This was particularly obvious in the RRN repository, but since related databases incorporate RRN material, the challenges should likely be understood as universal.
We noted earlier that there are differences of perspective expressed in law and in writing about the law from an indigenous perspective. Reducing the limitations imposed by copyright to access should also take account of differences between indigenous peoples’ views on the signification of cultural expression in the public domain. Such differences would affect the structure of the databases we have examined as well as access to individual collections records. Such practices are evident in the databases we explored. There are items on the RRN that users cannot access on the database owing to the knowledge traditions of the community. This is a clear example that the indigenous community is asserting its own ideas about access to information. Hence, as many experts have suggested [28
], social considerations must be taken into account in discussions of how information is linked and distributed.
Beyond the lack of provenance information accessible through archives, the question of open access provision raises another set of considerations. Ultimately, our research led us to a broader understanding of the latent content in image archives. We arrived at the conclusion that discourses on archives and technology, legal and social issues are mutually enfolded and entwined in the contemporary digital environment as evidenced in indigenous collections. What is most striking is that databases are sites of overlapping and sometimes competing discourses (epistemological, legal, cultural), and this is why we are overlapping a discourse on archives and technology, legal and social issues in this analysis. Often a question arises about just how opening up collections (objects and metadata) would help indigenous peoples whose cultural heritage has been usurped. How would this happen? Would alternative metadata be added to existing museum databanks of objects? What would the desired outcome be? What would we suggest? The answer depends on different community groups. Every database is managed individually and we see this as an opportunity to expand our research directions. Besides this, everyone would benefit from getting beyond formulaic “best practices” that historically favor dominant epistemological structures.
Yet our most important finding in our exploration of the RRN, the Inuvialuit Living History Portal and Searching for our Heritage has revealed that a WIPO framework for the protection of indigenous heritage information is at work restricting access and reuse within Canada. This is not entirely surprising, since digital image repositories often conceal a broader context of proprietary interests and monopoly of information in the name of intellectual property rights that function to limit access to information and to maintain structures that have placed constraints on repatriation efforts.
The WIPO defines IPR broadly as a general concept addressing ownership and usage conditions that apply to image content, in two different categories: 1. Moral rights, which function to conceive of creators as attached to the objects and information associated with their works, and 2. Economic copyright protections, which are conditional rights to copying, using, or otherwise exploiting content. In this WIPO framework, information included in a file becomes an integral part of that file that should persist without modification across potential sites of use such as different websites or platforms. Access to information associated with an image file might be restricted due to certain conditions, such as if the information is confidential or of a sensitive nature, or in order to preserve accuracy and the association of the relevant metadata to an image. Hence, while intellectual property protections may not meet all community needs, they can be used as tools to prevent exploitation and misappropriation or misattribution, or even to “maximize economic value”. The primary focus of the WIPO recommendations for indigenous intellectual property rights is to empower communities to tailor the protections to their specific needs [30
This is an important element to keep in mind when reflecting upon facilitating access to images in repatriation claims. The research of digital humanities specialists Fiona Cameron and Helena Robinson on digital collections and museum documentation practices challenges us to consider how image management might affect usage and access to online collections. There is a legitimate concern that classic existing intellectual property forms are unable to meet the current needs of indigenous communities in protecting their cultural property. Many would agree that this concern is more pressing in an age of relatively easy digital information sharing [31
] (p. 172). Nevertheless, classic intellectual property protections may be adapted for use by indigenous groups. Use or creation of special or sui generis intellectual property protections for the management of indigenous heritage and information have been suggested to address the diversity of world views, types of articles and information, as well as conceptions of property and knowledge stewardship that are not necessarily consistent across indigenous communities whose geographic presence and values across communities may or may not align with those of the colonial nations that typically govern intellectual property. Steps to empower indigenous claims on a more focused and local level should be of paramount concern in protecting rights to control cultural information [32
However, copyright protections are just one type of intellectual property right suggested by the WIPO to use in the protection of indigenous rights to cultural heritage information management. Copyright is the primary means of controlling information that is of a cultural nature. Broadly speaking, digital protection measures have the potential to further enforce copyright protection and to tilt the conception of a need for balance between rights holders and rights owners in copyright to favor exclusivity and exclusive rights holders. This movement of power leads to the question of what rights holders intend to accomplish by placing barriers to access on their property.
The WIPO recognizes that the objectives of documenting traditional knowledge (TK) and traditional cultural expressions (TCEs) are valuable for multiple reasons, including the safeguarding, preservation, and passing along of culture for present as well as future generations [33
]. Documentation of images and data accompanying these images fixes these as creations, and in the IPR conception positions these creations to be collectively under the purview of intellectual property protections. Issues with invoking intellectual property rights in such contexts include an understandable concern that documentation and sharing of information openly or without those protections can lead to misuse or unwanted disclosure of specific and potentially sensitive information; that intellectual property rights in cultural heritage databases end up being claimed as the sole intellectual property of the host institution that place the information online; and that protection granted to documented content under protection such as copyright has a limited scope (minimum life of the author plus 50 years by the standards laid out in the Berne Convention). Hence, while the opening up of records such as the Smithsonian’s online collections database and the creation of shared museum strategies to provide information pertaining to works whose provenance is in dispute have led to gains in this area, repatriation remains a concern. As “the most pervasive cultural regulatory system in the world” (Vaidhyanathan 2017 p. 6) limitations necessary to copyright such as fair use/fair dealing provisions and expiration of copyright protection vary in strength and relevance according to the national laws they are subject to. In a digitally connected world, the protections and exceptions therefore remain a patchwork that can be manipulated to reflect localized values and power [34