A Culture of Copyright: Towards a National Collection

Useful Reading

This report was specifically referenced during Karen Wulf's presentation, provided to a NISO audience on March 23 during the virtual conference, Digitization, Discovery and Use

The British Library provides additional information about the Towards a National Collection project which commissioned this report. The British Library is a member of the Library Standards Alliance at NISO. 

From The Executive Summary

This report was commissioned by the Towards a National Collection programme (TaNC) to better understand the ways in which open access shapes how the UK’s digital cultural heritage collections can be accessed and reused. The study was undertaken by Dr Andrea Wallace in 2021.

As stated on the website, TaNC’s goals are to support “research that breaks down the barriers that exist between the UK’s outstanding cultural heritage collections, with the aim of opening them up to new research opportunities and encouraging the public to explore them in new ways”. The UK’s galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAMs) hold an immense breadth of cultural heritage in trust for the public. In stewarding these collections, GLAMs produce new materials, like documentation, images, scans, data and metadata, research data and publications, and other types of media and knowledge. Many GLAMs extend access to collections and associated materials through websites or external platforms. Open access to digital collections is thus an essential tool to reduce barriers and enable wider public participation.

But what does ‘open access’ mean? And what does it enable the public to do with heritage collections? Across the UK, GLAMs take different paths to answering these and related questions. This research set out to study these paths within a sample of UK GLAMs that includes those involved in TaNC projects, complemented by wider data on open GLAM, digital collections and copyright law.

Four types of information inform this report:

(1) Existing empirical data on global open GLAM activity, policies and data volume;

(2) New empirical data on UK GLAMs, public domain collections and rights management, including: 

  • A dataset of 195 UK GLAMs containing information on online collections, rights statements and reuse policies, technical protection measures, publication platforms, open access engagement, commercial licensing practices, data volume and other data points;
  • An in-depth review of the rights statements and reuse policies of 63 GLAMs selected from that sample;
  • Thirty one-hour open ended interviews with TaNC project investigators, UK GLAM staff, external platform staff and open GLAM advocates;

(3) A review of relevant case law and policy developments in the UK and elsewhere; and

(4) A literature review of scholarly writing on copyright and open access to digital heritage collections.

The findings indicate there is no consensus in the UK GLAM sector on what open access means, or should mean. There is also a fundamental misunderstanding of what the public domain is, includes and should include. Indeed, staff perspectives and GLAM policies can vary widely, even within a given institution. Accordingly, this study aimed to discern and outline what support is necessary to address systemic barriers to open access, starting with copyright itself.

Copyright generally protects creative expressions during the creator’s lifetime and an additional 70 years after death. During the copyright term, the public pays the rightsholder a fee to reuse the work. The idea is that these economic benefits will incentivise creators to make new creative works, over which they will enjoy a limited monopoly from which they may profit and exert control. Once copyright expires, the work enters the public domain and is available for anyone to reuse for any purpose.[1] 

In this way, the public domain is a central part of the copyright bargain and its availability produces a wider benefit to society: public domain works can be reused to create new knowledge and cultural goods that enrich social welfare and invigorate the local economy. Considering these aspirations align with public missions, GLAMs around the world are in the process of updating digital remits and strategies to feature these goals for digitised public domain collections. Yet new questions can arise related to the presence or absence of copyright in digital surrogates of public domain works and collections data as a result. This study thus aimed to understand how the UK GLAM sector fared in the global open GLAM landscape and what new potentials are enabled by the digital national collection

The report is organised in six sections:

  • Section 1 situates this study among others like it and outlines the research approach, methods taken and data relied on.
  • Section 2 focuses on law and policy movements in the UK, the US and EU, taking readers through key developments, practices and findings that need to be understood to appreciate the data.
  • Sections 3 and 4 outline these data: first, data on open GLAM activity in the UK compared to the rest of the world; second, data on 195 UK GLAMs, including those involved in TaNC projects; and third, data on how 63 UK GLAMs interpret and apply copyright law to digitized public domain materials.
  • Section 5 analyses findings across the research and contextualizes them with evidence from interviews with practitioners.
  • Section 6 concludes with recommendations.

A particular contribution this report seeks to make is to outline gaps that will remain unless a range of strategies and support are taken up to redirect who can access and reuse the UK’s outstanding cultural heritage collections. Because of copyright’s complicated nature, the report also provides the necessary context to appreciate the data, findings and recommendations. The UK GLAM sector currently sits at a crossroads: it can either crystallize the status quo of gatekeeping through copyright, or it can embrace open access and truly enable new societal growth and knowledge generation through digital media availability. 

In the UK open GLAM space there is a lack of leadership which TaNC is well positioned to provide.TaNC can influence future policy making in ways that break down the barriers existing between the UK’s outstanding cultural collections, including public access to and reuse of them. This report addresses both how and why a TaNC position on open access to cultural collections is essential and necessary. It goes further by mapping the areas where real policy progress can be made. Consequently, this report considers a wider audience than TaNC and its projects, and it identifIes barriers that reinforce a culture of copyright around the UK’s cultural heritage collections in the public domain, quite literally, at the public’s expense.

Full Report Available Here


[1] The focal point of this report is limited to copyright. Other intellectual property rights, like a trade mark or publication right, can impact digitisation, availability and use. These are secondary to the main question about whether the digital materials should be in the public domain and are not addressed here.