By Sarah Shreeves

One of my favorite articles in the library literature is Melanie Schlosser’s “Unless Otherwise Indicated: A Survey of Copyright Statements on Digital Library Collections” in the July 2009 College & Research Libraries. Schlosser looked at the copyright statements for digital collections of members of the Digital Library Federation and did an analysis of their content. She identified several trends in these such as “The Vague Ownership Statement” and “Protecting Ourselves and You”, and, in general, found that these statements provided mixed messages about terms of use and copyright, and incomplete information about the actual copyright status of the items themselves. The examples she provides throughout the text give one a great sense of those mixed messages, incomplete information, and general CYA language that many libraries have used.

As she points out, the inconsistency and lack of information do our users a disservice and indicate a failure of libraries to take an opportunity to better educate our users, particularly about fair use and the public domain. I’ve certainly become more attuned to this as our digital collections become more enmeshed in the classroom, within digital scholarship (particularly in the humanities), and more visible to the broader public through large scale aggregations such as the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). While simple access to content remains important, many users are interested in *re-use* of content which often requires a deeper understanding of rights.

In 2009 Schlosser concluded that “The results of this study suggest that it is time for libraries active in digitization projects to examine the issues involved and develop a set of best practices for copyright statements on digital collections.” Schlosser’s call for best practices has felt largely unheeded (at least at a big tent community level) until recently when the DPLA and Europeana came together to develop a set of standardized rights statements – just released on April 14th – “that can be used to communicate the copyright and re-use status for digital objects to the public.” Large scale metadata aggregators struggle with the sheer number and variety of rights statements; inconsistency or lack of a rights statements make functionality such as limiting to items in the public domain difficult. (For a flavor of the variety of rights statements in DPLA see is a big deal. The statements are international in scope, and, critically, are designed to be embedded within the semantic web so that they can be acted on programmatically. The 11 statements are fairly comprehensive and allow for cultural institutions to indicate various nuances of meaning within three broad categories: In Copyright, No Copyright, and Other. They echo the structure of Creative Commons licenses (although are NOT to be confused with CC licenses). The simplicity of these obscures, I am certain, a huge amount of complex and time consuming work.

The University of Miami Libraries in partnership with several other Florida libraries are in the midst of putting together a DPLA service hub application, and we’ve been looking more closely at our metadata and discovering how many of our items either didn’t have rights statements or displayed many of the problems that Schlosser described. Our generic copyright page for our digital collections was also unsatisfying and mentioned fair use and the public domain only in passing and instead contained mainly language that seemed designed to scare our users, rather than help them.

So we –  specifically, our Head of Digital Production, Laura Capell, and our Digital Initiatives Metadata Librarian, Elliot Williams –  have embarked on a project to align our rights statements on our digital collections with It’s early days yet, but we’ve changed our generic copyright page for digital collections to be more descriptive and, we hope, provide a bit more clarity to our users. We’ve also started to add the standardized rights statements to our metadata records – see the metadata for this letter from a Civil War Union soldier as an example.

ANTI-Copyright statement from Bay State Badass

Copyright statement in Bay State Badass: a bike zine for the Bay State badass (page 3)

This is obviously time intensive work. Some designations can easily be made at a collection level, but for others we need to look more closely at the items. We are examining our deeds of gift to understand if there had been a transfer of rights or a contractual issue (covered by No Copyright – Contractual Restrictions statement). We are having more conversations with our three distinctive collections units about copyright and access. We’ve uncovered gems like like this zine which states “ANTI copyright – make copies & share so I don’t have to. god I hate & fear photocopies.” And we are improving and clarifying the information that we are providing to our researchers, students, and the public.

Our one quibble with the statements so far is that one statement – Undetermined – which had appeared in an earlier draft of the statements is not present here. We’ve discovered plenty of items where we just don’t have enough information to make a determination because of a lack of provenance or date information. None of the other statements quite fit this situation – we’ve done an evaluation so the Copyright Not Evaluated doesn’t apply. We don’t feel comfortable assigning either a No Known Copyright or an In Copyright – Rights-Holder(s) Unlocatable or Unidentifiable statement. I’ve heard that there’s an effort to get Undetermined back into which would be good news for many of us!

I’m really pleased that we are doing this work – as time intensive and difficult as it is – to aid our users. And I want to commend DPLA and Europeana who have done the larger cultural heritage community a huge service in developing; I look forward to seeing how this work continues.

Comments (4)

  1. Kudos to the team, and to you and Melanie Schlosser for bringing these needs and solutions to wider attention.

    I’m struck, reading your piece along with Ellen Finnie’s recent posts on using library buying power and license negotiations to influence the scholarly communication system, by how much each library can do locally and collectively to make change. We can work from both ends — in the ways we create digital content and our choices about paying for it — to steadily create digital scholarship that is more effectively discoverable, usable, citable, re-useable, shareable.

  2. Thanks for the lovely post and cite! It has been really heartening to watch this issue pick up steam over the last couple of years, and I’m glad to hear you all are tackling it in a systematic way at Miami. I’ll admit I haven’t come as far as I would like with our local collections (though we have created some standard statements that we try to use as often as possible:, so it’s always great to have more role models!

  3. ‘Undetermined’ will be back soon – hold tight!

  4. […] Shreeves (2016), “Clarity for Our Users,” In the […]

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