Report Open Access

A Culture of Copyright: A scoping study on open access to digital cultural heritage collections in the UK

Wallace, Andrea

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. The recommendations presented are the authors own and their report form part of the evidence that Towards a National Collection continues to gather to determine the future policies it will recommend.

Andrea Wallace gives a focused discussion on how the UK Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museum (GLAM) sector fares in the global open GLAM landscape and what potential is possible with a digital national collection. 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:
    1. 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;
    2. An in-depth review of the rights statements and reuse policies of 63 GLAMs selected from that sample;
    3. 30 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

[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.

Files (4.7 MB)
Name Size
A Culture of Copyright - A. Wallace.pdf
4.7 MB Download
All versions This version
Views 6,7986,798
Downloads 3,2463,246
Data volume 15.4 GB15.4 GB
Unique views 5,6665,666
Unique downloads 2,8442,844


Cite as