"Display At Your Own Risk”: Misconnections Between Cultural Institutions and Users When Enabling Online Access to Public Domain Works

Andrea Wallace (University of Glasgow), “"Display At Your Own Risk”:  Misconnections Between Cultural Institutions and UsersWhen Enabling Online Access to Public Domain Works”

It is common practice during the digitization of public domain works to claim new intellectual property rights over the digital surrogates. Whether this practice is generally accepted, however, is becoming increasingly controversial: by enforcing copyright to digital surrogates, cultural institutions have begun to expose such practices and generate greater public awareness and interest. Underlying digitization efforts is a genuine intent to make collections more available online. Yet, what the public understands about copyright, its expiration, and the reuse of public domain works online is often vastly different than what an institution formalizes and makes transparent through its policies and in practice. This article examines these points of genuine confusion and how they may have a chilling effect on engagement and use. By approaching the issue from a user’s perspective, the article presents research gathered during the curation of an experimental exhibition, which examines the various levels of access granted by cultural institutions to digital surrogates of public domain works. In doing so, this article addresses the gap between a user’s understanding of the public domain and a cultural institution’s approach when making works available online, which is translated through and guided by both institutional and legal norms. Ultimately, these access-driven policies are a product of systemic tensions and uncertainty in copyright law, and they result in misconnections between users and cultural institutions when enabling online access to public domain works.