Tue 11 Nov 2008
I recently returned from Athens Greece and a facinating meeting hosted by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. The meeting (“Digital Heritage in the New Knowledge Environment: Shared Spaces & Open Paths to Cultural Content“) explored how the Greek cultural heritage sector is embracing and is challenged by the explosion of digital technologies and content that is currently reshaping the globe.
The meeting highlighted important tensions in the adoption of digital dissemination frameworks. For many of us who have been working with digital technologies for the past several years, the tensions are familiar, and at the risk of putting them into a characture form, I can summarize them below:
|Nearly free access to the full richness of the documented record of Greece’s cultural heritage||Resistance to abandoning traditional models of “cost recovery” (subscription charges). Continued attempts to charge for content, even though the justifications for such charges seem poorly articulated.|
|The possibility to use digital dissemination technologies to enhance the comprehensiveness, scope, and transparency in cultural heritage documentation and research.||The social realities of micro-politics, personal rivalries, and established norms of professional practice which inhibit transparency and create incentives for data-hording. As in many other parts of the world (US archaeology included!) paper publication is still has more prestige than digital dissemination. A fetish for paper seems to be a common affliction in the humanities and social sciences.|
|The capability of digital content to be easily and endlessly duplicated, adapted, and incorporated into new scholarly, educational, or artistic works.||Long standing national copyright claims over Greek cultural patrimony. It seems that the Greek state has legislated ownership over it’s past. Releasing the documentary record of Greece’s past into a digital commons may pose some legal challenges. (See these discussions: one and two of intellectual property claims over national heritage)|
The whole “copyrighting the past” argument is interesting. Though I have no formal legal training, I’ve picked up some expectations from living within the Anglo-American legal tradition. At least traditionally, we’ve got a very economic / practical view of copyright, and typically regard copyright as a convenient legal fiction to incentivize creative production. “Copyrighting” a work that is 2500 years-old obviously flies in the face of this tradition. However, parts of Continental Europe have different legal traditions. Copyright over the works of Classical Antiquity seem to be somehow in line with “moral rights” types of perspectives, where the goal of copyright is not only to protect commercial incentives, but it is also to protect, in perpetuity, the dignity and honor of the creator of works. That seemed to be some of the argument given in comments made at this conference.
Given Greece’s recent history of resistence to Ottoman imperialism, exploitation by Western powers, and transition out of “developing world” to “developed” status, attempts to guard national honor and dignity of a past that is so important to Greece’s national identity makes some sense. However, this perspective doesn’t seem to work so well in the new digital environment, where everything is global, remixable, and seemingly uncontrollable. Legislative mandates to protect “dignity” seem difficult if not impossible to enforce.
Oddly enough, the current situation may have the perverse effect of making it difficult for members of the public to use Greek cultural heritage for mainstream academic or instructional purposes. People who would be more likely to use Greek antiquity in obnoxious ways are probably precisely those people who would tend to ignore legislative restrictions.
It’ll be fascinating to watch how Greece will adapt its cultural heritage policies in this new world.
[UPDATED]: Mary Saunders also posted about her experiences at the conference, and she has some additional useful links to related content.
I’ll update with even more links of blog reactions as I find them.
I want to thank the Hellenic Ministry of Culture for their invitation for me to attend this meeting. I deeply appeciated the opportunity to participate in this discussion.