Tag Archives: beta

Slowly improving Copyright clarity

Ever since the online collection first properly went live in 2012 our collection images had a little line under them that said “please don’t steal our images, yeah?”. Whilst it was often commented that this was a friendly, casual approach that felt in keeping with the prevailing winds of the Internet, the statement was purposely vague and, at the end of the day, pretty unhelpful.

screencap-cooper-hewitt-rights.jpg 1,181×570 pixels

After all, “what is ‘stealing’ an image”? “Isn’t the Smithsonian, as a public institution, already owned by the ‘public'”? “What about ‘fair use'”? And, as many pointed out, “why are you claiming some kind of rights over images of objects that are clearly date from before the 20th century?”. Some also spotted the clear disconnect between the ‘please don’t steal’ language and our other visible commitments to open licensing and open source.

First, a bit of history.

The majority of the Cooper Hewitt collection predates its acquisition by the Smithsonian. The collection was originally at Cooper Union until the museum there closed in 1963. It was officially acquired by the Smithsonian in 1968 and the Cooper Hewitt was opened in the Andrew Carnegie Mansion in 1976. The effect of this history is that much of the pre-1968 collection is unevenly documented and its provenance very much still under active research. Post-1976 it is possible to see, in the metadata, the different waves of museum management and collection documentation, as new objects were added to the collection and new collection policies became formalised. Being a ‘new museum’ in 1976 also meant that much of the focus was on exhibitions, not so much on the business of documenting collections. Add to this the rise of computer-based catalogues and you have a very ‘layered’ history.

Cooper Hewitt has not had the resources or staff to undertake the type of multi-year Copyright audits that museums like the V&A have done, and as a result, with provenance and documentation in many cases quite scant, the museum has had to make ‘best efforts’.

With the recent tweaks to the online collection, we have finally been able to make some clarifying changes.

Like all Smithsonian museums, all online content is subject to institution-wide ‘Terms of use‘. This governs the ‘permitted uses’ of anything on our websites, irrespective of underlying rights. These terms are not created at an individual museum level but are part of Smithsonian-wide policy. You can see that whilst these terms allow only ‘allows personal, educational, and other non-commercial uses’ they encourage the use of Fair Use under US Copyright law.

However, that said, we think it is important to be clear on what is definitely out of Copyright, and what may not be. And over time, as the collection gets better documented, more of the unknowns will become known.

So here’s what we have done – its not perfect – but at least its better than it was. And, to be perfectly honest, we’re only talking about the possible rights inherent in the underlying object in the image, as the digital image itself was created by the Smithsonian. Some of the types of object in our collection may not be eligible for Copyright protection in the first place.

For objects from our permanent collection

1. acquired before 1923 then we say “This object has no known Copyright restrictions. You are welcome to use this image in compliance with our Terms of Use.” For example, this medal acquired in 1907.

2. acquired in or after 1923 but has a known creation date [‘end date’ in our collection database] that is before 1923, then we say “This object has no known Copyright restrictions. You are welcome to use this image in compliance with our Terms of Use.” This 1922 textile acquired in 2015 is a good example.

3. acquired in or after 1923 but without a known, documented, creation date [‘end date’ in our collection database], then we say “This object may be subject to Copyright or other restrictions. You are welcome to make fair use of this image under U.S. Copyright law and in compliance with our terms of use. Please note that you are responsible for determining whether your use is fair and for responding to any claims that may arise from your use.” For example this ‘early 20th century’ Indonesian textile.

This scenario is far too common and you will come across objects that clearly appear to be pre-20th century that have not been formally dated, as well as objects that say in their name or description that they are pre-20th century but have not been correctly entered into the database and don’t have their ‘end date’ field completed. An especially egregious example is this 18th century French textile that has incomplete cataloguing. In the collection database it has no ‘end date’ (it should have 1799 as an ‘end date’) and clearly should have no Copyright restrictions.

4. acquired in or after 1923 with a known creation date also in or after 1923 [‘end date’ in our collection database], then we say “This object may be subject to Copyright or other restrictions. You are welcome to make fair use of this image under U.S. Copyright law and in compliance with our terms of use. Please note that you are responsible for determining whether your use is fair and for responding to any claims that may arise from your use.” For example this 2010 wallpaper.

Many of the ‘utilitarian objects’ in our collection – clocks, tables, chairs, much of the product design collection – are legally untested in terms of whether Copyright applies, however in many of these cases other IP protection may apply.

As the US Copyright Office states,

“Copyright does not protect the mechanical or utilitarian aspects of such works of craftsmanship. It may, however, protect any pictorial, graphic, or sculptural authorship that can be identified separately from the utilitarian aspects of an object. Thus a useful article may have both copyrightable and uncopyrightable features. For example, a carving on the back of a chair or a floral relief design on silver flatware could be protected by copyright, but the design of the chair or flatware itself could not. Some designs of useful articles may qualify for protection under the federal patent law.” [source]

For objects on loan from other institutions, companies or individuals

5. irrespective of its known age, we now say “This object may be subject to Copyright, loan conditions or other restrictions”.

As you can see we have had to make some very conservative decisions, largely as a result of the incompleteness of our data and museum records.

If you spot any of these (you could download the entire metadata from Github to programmatically do this), log them with their accession number in our Zendesk and they will be prioritised to be fixed.

Small steps.



Update: Steven Lubar asked us on Twitter to share the number of object records that fall in to each of the categories. Here are those numbers:

Acquired before 1923 32,442
Acquired on or after 1923 and known creation date before 1923 5,232
Acquired on or after 1923 and no known creation date 136,372
Acquired on or after 1923 and known creation date on or after 1923 30,357
Loan objects 13,477

Building Design Week NYC with Ushahidi

Today we pushed an event aggregator site for Design Week NYC out into the world.

Pulled together quickly in response to community need, we used the open source Ushahidi platform, usually used for emergency situations. We jokingly talked about using it to ‘tackle a design emergency’.

Micah answered a couple of questions about the project.

Why Ushahidi? What was Cooper-Hewitt’s relationship with them, if any?

When our communications and marketing team approached us with this project, I immediately thought of Ushahidi. We had recently featured Ushahidi in our Design with the Other 90%: CITIES exhibition, and through this I had grown to know their platform. Although originally designed for use with emergency situations and election monitoring ( or Wall Street occupying ) I thought that it could easily be customized to make sense for a city-wide week of related events. it seemed a perfect fit.

Ushahidi is an open source platform that is very much in development. Were there any tensions between using it ‘out of the box’ and the desired functionality?

Yes, we had to customize it to suit our needs. The main issue was the nomenclature Ushahidi has baked in across the platform. For example, the term “reports” didn’t really fit the vision we had for our deployment, as we would be mainly listing “events.” However, it turned out that this was fairly easy to remedy as the dev team at Ushahidi has done a decent job in compartmentalizing these kinds of things in the source code. The platform is also theme based, much like WordPress, so we were able to customize the overall look and feel of the site to our liking.

Some other issues we have come across have to do with the basic workflow. In a typical Ushahidi deployment, people on the ground submit reports. Its pretty straight forward. For our site, it would make more sense to create a list of events on a running basis and then allow the use of SMS and email and twitter to essentially comment and “check in.” It’s really only a matter of associating these things with the right data model, but this is failry rigid at the moment within the Ushahidi platform.

What were some of the major technical difficulties in getting it up and running?

Ushahidi has a lot of moving parts. Getting a basic install up and running is pretty easy ( about as easy as installing WordPress ) but it took some time to figure out how to integrate the site with the wide variety of plugins and add ons that are required to make the site really work. Functionality like following a twitter hashtag, submitting events via email or text took a little effort to get working properly.

Can you imagine a less-emergency-oriented fork of Ushahidi for these sorts of event planner operations?

Yes! I think it would be great to either fork Ushahidi for sites like ours that are more event driven and less “reporting.” However, I also sort of wonder if the dev team at Ushahidi might consider redesigning the core to make some of this a little more flexible. I’d also love to see them help prepare open sourced iPhone code for a more custom app deployment. There was a great article about using Ushahidi to essentially “roll your own” foursquare. The platform supports the idea of checkins via the iPhone app, though this part of the project seems to be fairly beta at the moment.