March 22, 2018

DPLA, Europeana, Creative Commons Collaborate on International Rights Statements

dpla-europeana-cclogoThe Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) joined forces with Europeana and Creative Commons (CC) to create a collaborative, interoperable platform for international rights statements. The International Rights Statement Working Group (Working Group), composed of representatives from the three organizations, spent the past 12 months outlining a proposal for a common framework to provide rights statements for both national and international cultural heritage objects.

Currently a range of 12 different rights statements are being proposed. These will be hosted in their own namespace,, and will be available in multiple languages. The framework takes much of its inspiration from CC, which provides access to usage licenses as a not-for-profit third party. Much as users are now able to associate a CC license for materials on the web by referencing its uniform resource identifier (URI), the new international rights statement platform will provide persistent links to representations of the statements.


Europeana and DPLA operate on similar systems, aggregating digitized cultural heritage material from partner institutions—books, periodicals, video, audio, artwork, and archival documents—via a system of hubs, with a distributed network and freely available metadata. This material, both in and out of copyright, is governed by a range of usage and permission rights. Europeana, which launched in 2008, holds contributions from more than 2,000 cultural institutions from all 28 member states of the European Union (EU). DPLA, launched in 2013, currently works with 20 hubs and more than 1,100 partners.

The Europeana Licensing Framework, developed in 2011, standardizes rights across the European Union. While it has been successful for the EU’s needs, there are areas of important differences in copyright law between Europe and the rest of the world, particularly the United States. Paul Keller, codirector of Kennisland, an Amsterdam think tank that has been working with Europeana on rights-related issues since the platform’s inception, explained, “We needed to figure out a way of communicating the rights information related to cultural heritage objects in a uniform way, because we wanted to have something which is a) readily understandable to end users and b) something which can be used in a meaningful way as a filter.” The DPLA/Europeana platform, he told LJ, would provide “fairly high-level abstract rights statements where you can say ‘Give me all of the public domain stuff’ or ‘give me all of the stuff that can be freely accessed but not reused,’ instead of having to query lots of different unstructured rights statements.”

The two organizations have had an interest in working together on licensing issues since DPLA was in its planning stages. In October 2013 they collaborated on a rights management workshop in Boston, which mainly focused on sharing experiences between the two projects but also introduced the idea of collaboration in rights labeling.

“As we began to move along with DPLA and we started aggregating more data,” DPLA director for content and Working Group co-chair Emily Gore told LJ, “we…were able to see what a big issue it is when the rights information is not controlled.” After discussing a collaboration with Keller and Europeana’s intellectual rights and policy advisor Julia Fallon, DPLA applied for a Knight News Challenge grant to scope out the project and put together an initial working group. They were awarded a grant for $300,000 in June 2014, which enabled the group to meet in person, first in New York and then in Amsterdam.


The vocabulary for the rights statements will be developed using the Resource Description Framework (RDF) and Simple Knowledge Organization System (SKOS) standards. Both standards are currently in use in the Europeana Data Model and the DPLA Metadata Application Profile. In addition, the Working Group will be looking at the Creative Commons Rights Expression Language (ccREL) and Open Digital Rights Language (ODRL) models, and will build on the Best Practice Recipes for Publishing RDF Vocabularies, with modifications for the language differences. The data model is being managed in a GitHub repository while in progress.

URIs linking to the statements will be dereferenceable: that is, the request for a rights statement will return a representation of the statement in question in either human-readable form—an HTML page with text—or machine-readable format, including such information as the name and version of the statement and the jurisdiction where it applies. “For example,” DPLA director of technology Mark Matienzo told LJ, “if you’re building an application like a metadata creation interface for a digital collection system, you could say ‘I want to bring back the structure description so I can use it with my local system.’”

Specific infrastructure to support the multilingual rights statements will also be built in, Matienzo explained. “If you know that you want, say, the Spanish translation of a given rights statement, there’s a special way you can request it back…particularly if you need it in a human-readable context, it’ll show you that translation. That particular skin is something that we added based on how Creative Commons has implemented their rights statements.”

The project’s final outline will include, at minimum, a proposal for the technical infrastructure; an initial list of rights statements; a proposal for the governance structure; and a proposal for sustaining the operation of the rights labeling infrastructure. The Working Group has released two white papers addressing these requirements, and will accept comments on them through June 26. The first, “Recommendations for Standardized International Rights Statements,” describes the need for a standardized approach, and outlining the necessary principles. The second, “Recommendations for the Technical Infrastructure for Standardized International Rights Statements,” posits the new namespace and includes recommendations for how to build and implement it. A third white paper on the project’s governance, proposing an approach that will be sustainable and accessible to all stakeholders, is expected by the end of the summer. Once all three papers have incorporated feedback, the Working Group will begin implementation of the new rights statements. It will convene again this July in Washington, DC along with Diane Peters, Creative Commons’ general counsel and corporate secretary.


While both organizations have a strong common mission, there are still disparities to be negotiated, particularly the varying levels of rights information provided by the contributors of digital material. “The types of metadata that we get is incredibly diverse,” Keller said, “and in a large number of different languages, which makes it very difficult to work with—especially in areas like relaying descriptive information…but also it makes it very difficult to standardize something.” Previously, he explained, most of this information was provided through the Rights field of the Dublin Core (DC) metadata standards. “You would see incredible diversity in terms of languages and also in terms of how people structure the information. Some would just contain a copyright sign and the name of an entity, in other cases there would be information about multiple types of rights holders, and sometimes there was long descriptive text…that tried to describe rights information.”

Europeana’s answer to this was the creation of its own higher-level metadata rights field that could only be populated with one of the standardized Europeana Data Model Documentation rights. The new framework will incorporate this rights field, which will be “language-agnostic”—values to be filled in are URLs, not text, that will resolve in whatever language the user’s browser is configured for. “On the other hand,” added Keller, “we’ve also made the conscious decision to preserve the sometimes much richer underlying information in DC Rights—not suppress that information, but have it available as secondary information for people who want to dive deeper into the rights status of an object.”

The new framework also needs to take into account international differences in copyright law. The EU, for example, has orphan works legislation, so most likely only EU partners will be using the orphan works statement. Conversely, the “no known copyright restrictions” statement, said Matienzo, “works in the U.S. context of doing a risk analysis and having something like fair use to fall back on, whereas that doesn’t really make sense to use within the European system because something needs to have a clear status, either [one way or the other]. ‘No known copyright restrictions’ doesn’t really say anything in the European context.” He added, “In the U.S. there is a much stronger tradition of approaching copyright questions in terms of assessing risk, whereas in Europe it is a much stronger tradition of trying to determine a specific status.”


In a statement on DPLA’s website, Gore wrote, “This important work will, above all, make rights clear to the end user and provide a framework for aggregators and our partners. With the creation and standardization of actionable rights statements, users will know when a work is in the Public Domain, covered under a Creative Commons license or is Rights Restricted, among other possible labels.”

The Working Group hopes that the framework will eventually be used worldwide. Other large-scale cultural heritage aggregators such as Trove in Australia, the National Library of New Zealand’s DigitalNZ, and the National Digital Library of Korea have already expressed interest in adopting and contributing to the statements. “We figured if we could make something that is useful for both institutions,” said Keller, “we could probably establish something like a worldwide standard for high-level rights statements that can be used to filter cultural heritage collections and make them more accessible for third-party developers and also for end users.”

However, developing the framework, said Gore, is only the first step. An important component will be to build educational tools around the new statements so that cultural heritage professionals can learn how to correctly analyze their collections. “Working with people to educate them about…how to apply the statements, to actually have the tools to analyze their collections and to figure out what statements to use—the education piece is a much bigger piece than building the framework,” Gore explained.

DPLA will use its network to help provide that training to its partners, drawing on the expertise of associates such as Melissa Levine, lead copyright officer at the University of Michigan library and lead counsel for HathiTrust; Greg Cram, associate director of copyright and information policy at the New York Public Library; and David Hansen, clinical assistant professor of law and reference librarian at the University of North Carolina School of Law. “One of the reasons there are so many rights statements in DPLA and in cultural heritage in general,” said Gore, “is because people are uncomfortable, so there’s often this boilerplate generic statement that goes on everything that they put up instead of actually analyzing and saying ‘Yes, this object is in the public domain’ or ‘this is a creative commons license’…. The risk assessment in their institutions is forcing them to use these generic statements.” Through educational campaigns, webinars, and in-person sessions, DPLA hopes to engage partners worldwide to help them feel more comfortable using the new platform.

“The greatest confusion is the distinction between licenses and these statements,” added Matienzo. “These are not necessarily designed to replace Creative Commons statements, but to work alongside them.”

All members of the Working Group speak highly of the team effort. “We’ve collaborated well with Europeana from the very beginning,” Gore told LJ. “I was the first DPLA employee and one of my very first trips was to meet with Europeana in the Hague and talk about what it was they were doing.” As DPLA moved from concept to launch, “that spirit of collaboration and sharing and working together…has been there from the beginning.”

“This collaboration is very exciting for us,” said Keller. “It really feels that we that we can make a big impact here in structuring something with an incredibly well-informed group of people [to] find a long-term solution to an issue which has been difficult to deal with for lots of cultural heritage institutions.” He added, “Hopefully we…will come up with a system that is useful to institutions who are now in a transitional phase in digitizing large parts of collections, and will be useful for a long time to come…to make this complex issue of copyright as transparent as possible for the users of these collections.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.