Five stars of re-use

Anyone working within a taxpayer-funded cultural or research-based organisation at the moment will be aware that we’re expected to collaborate more with other organisations and develop new and innovative partnerships. It’s not simple but it has the potential to be really positive for the people that our organisations serve. I like to break things down into threes, and can see three important angles in greater collaboration: personal relationships, funding, and infrastructure. The latter’s the one I’m interested in here, particularly how we can make systems that help collaboration.

One approach I like is for organisations to – on one hand – stick to their knitting and concentrate on what they do well and – on the other – share what they have with others. With other organisations sticking to what they do well, then many organisations can contribution their own piece of a story to a much greater whole. So somehow they have to work out ways of sharing their parts and connecting it to the other parts.

Open data

Linked open data has the potential to provide a lot of the real technical grunt for this. Without understanding the deep technology of it, it’s a concept I really like: my data can talk to your data and work out where each intersects and connects. To better understand it at a very high level, the 5 stars of open data provided a really simple way of breaking down the steps needed to take your web content from something flat to something more connected and useful on the internet.

Floated as an idea orginally by Tim Berners-Lee, it was aimed at making data not just available but useful. “It is the unexpected re-use of information which is the value added by the web.” The stars are a simple idea, especially in the way they’re presented as steps in a progression. One star isn’t much, but it’s a start, and leads on to ever-greater levels of connection and usefulness.

Digital resources

Sharing content as data seems a long way off for the projects I’m involved with just at the moment (though we’re thinking seriously about it). What’s often more pressing is getting some clarity and efficiency when it comes to sharing digital objects like images, audio, video, and even text. Collectively these objects could be referred to as resources – they’re things that exist that different people want to use and re-use. There’s no real automation involved, rather it’s a matter of seeing something you want to use and knowing how and when you can do so.

Creative Commons has gone a long way to simplifying how resource owners can describe re-use rights. Also, NZGOAL in the New Zealand government context is doing a lot to encourage adoption of some kind of licencing. But it’s still not easy to know what you can and can’t use, to the point that organisations like the one I work for have no simple way of collaborating with large collecting insitutions around re-use, despite the fact that we’re all government funded.

There’s a mental shift required that accepts re-use is positive and is something to be encouraged, and a move from a default position where access is closed to one where it’s open. And in practical terms, it’s going to be a process of small steps. All of which finally gets me to my point. Can we apply something like the 5 stars to resource sharing? Could it help move organisations along as a way of addressing copyright and re-use of digital objects? And would it be useful as a way of measuring progress toward a cultural commons?

Five stars

Here’s a starter for 5 stars of re-use:

✰ resource is available on the web
✰✰ copyright and re-use statements exist
✰✰✰ re-use is restricted
✰✰✰✰ re-use is unrestricted (but with expectations)
✰✰✰✰✰ re-use is freely encouraged (no restrictions, no expectations)

I’ll flesh these out in more detail in a later post, but for now I’m interested in whether they provide a logical progression, whether the end point is attainable (or enough), and ultimately whether as a progression it might help organisations move toward a more open arrangement for their resources?


Update, 29 January 2013: Mia Ridge posted some links on Twitter in response to this post that I’ve found really interesting. Proposed: a 4-star classification-scheme for linked open cultural metadata from the LOD-LAM Summit in 2011, and one of her own posts On releasing museum data and the importance of licenses. They’ve got me thinking again about the difficulty of attribution for data or content used in mashups, and the complexity of non-commercial licences. To requote something from Mia’s post:

Commercial and non-commercial are very difficult to determine. As such, I make a point of never using photos that have a non-commercial license. Too much hassle. (I also now do not use photos with a share-alike provision. Same reason, too much hassle.)

One plus one equals none

This is the basic argument of a lightning talk I was going to give at NDF2012. Life got in the way, so I didn’t give the talk, though I touched on some of the digital ecosystem bits in my opening remarks.


It’s about two policies playing out in public institutions: user pays and NZGOAL. User pays has been around for a while; I’m not sure how long exactly, as a lightning talk I wasn’t going to have to be too specific. NZGOAL is relatively new – the New Zealand Government Online Access Licensing framework (framework doesn’t get capped, no idea why not, but I guess NZGOALF looked stupid).

User pays feels like a hangover, from a time when the public service was just discovering its shiny 80s post-walk shorts self. Education, health, the conservation estate, cultural institutions all realised (or were made to realise) their worth and some kind of value in charging users. Fast-forward to the 21st century and a new ethos in government about making stuff available for  public and private re-use, supporting innovation, sharing the great asset of material held by public institutions. But add to that declining baselines (that’s bureaucrat-speak for having less money), and a public service under pressure to do more with less, and user pays is probably taking on a palliative role for organisation finances.

The two policies are in direct opposition to each other.

I don’t have answers but I do have questions and want to challenge organisations to ask themselves which approach is the one their organization is following. I expect it’s more complicated than that, and organisations are treading a careful line between the two policies – supporting openness where they can and charging users where they can’t avoid it. But it goes to a bigger question than that: our content is an asset with value, but who owns that asset and who has the right to exploit its value – the institutions/government or the public/taxpayers?

Virginia Gow had some good thoughts on this (based on the sort of collection institution experience I don’t have), that charging is warranted sometimes but not all the time. For example, charge for the initial digitisation but don’t charge for subsequent reorders of the same digital file. And Sean Murgatroyd had some thoughts after the NDF barcamp in Wellington, that argued against the simplicity of seeing it as a dichotomy. I’ll revisit his email soon.

But what I touched on in my opening remarks was why I think it’s the public and even commercial organisations that should be exploiting the value of our collective asset, and how that’s potentially more valuable to organisations than the money they might make through charges. Free content generates demand; commercial use creates greater exposure of our content and brands; content being used makes collections indispensable.