UKOLN Good Practice Guide for Developers of Cultural Heritage Web Services

Intellectual Property Rights


This section was originally published as QA Focus Briefing papers.


Internet IPR is inherently complex, breaking across geographical boundaries, creating situations that are illegal in one country, yet not in another, or contradict existing laws on Intellectual Property. Copyright is a subset of IPR, which applies to all artistic works. It is automatically assigned to the creator of original material, allowing them to control all public usage (copying, adaptation, performance and broadcasting).

Ensuring that your organisation complies with Intellectual Property rights requires a detailed understanding of two processes:

  1. Managing copyright on own work.
  2. Establishing ownership of 3rd party copyright.

Managing Copyright on Own Work

Unless indicated, copyright is assigned to the author of an original work. When producing work it is essential that it be established who will own the resulting product the individual or the institution. Objects produced at work or university may belong to the institution, depending upon the contract signed by the author. For example, the copyright for this document belongs to the AHDS, not the author. When approaching the subject, the author should consider several issues:

When producing work as an individual that is intended for later publication, the author should establish ownership rights to indicate how work can be used after initial publication:

Copyright Clearance

Copyright is an automatically assigned right. It is therefore likely that the majority of works in a digital collection will be covered by copyright, unless explicitly stated. The copyright clearance process requires the digitiser to check the copyright status of:

Copyright clearance should be established at the beginning of a project. If clearance is denied after the work has been included in the collection, it will require additional effort to remove it and may result in legal action from the author.

In the event that an author, or authors, is unobtainable, the project is required to demonstrate they have taken steps to contact them. Digital preservation projects are particularly difficult in this aspect, separating the researcher and the copyright owner by many years. In many cases, more recently the 1986 Domesday project, it has proven difficult to trace authorship of 1000+ pieces of work to individuals. In this project, the designers created a method of establishing permission and registering objections by providing contact details that an author could use to identify their work.

Indicating IPR through Metadata

If permission has been granted to reproduce copyright work, the institution is required by law to indicate intellectual property status. Metadata is commonly used for this purpose, storing and distributing IP data for online content. Several metadata bodies provide standardized schemas for copyright information. For example, IP information for a book could be stored in the following format.

<book id="bk112">
<author>Galos, Mike</author>
<title>Visual Studio 7: A Comprehensive Guide</title>
          <publisher>Addison Press</publisher>
          <copyright>Galos, M. 2001</copyright>

Access inhibitors can also be set to identify copyright limitations and the methods necessary to overcome them. For example, limiting e-book use to IP addresses within a university environment.

Licencing Work

The ease of publication and availability of text, graphics and video on the Internet allow anyone to become their own publisher. As an effect, modern web sites contain a jigsaw of copyrighted works produced by multiple authors.

This free attitude to copyright presents a challenge to authors - what measures can be taken for authors to protect their own work? More accurately, can copyrighted work be protected in some way?

To protect your work it is important that the distribution license is considered before you release your work. This can be achieved by answering several questions:

If the answer to these questions is no, you are automatically assigned rights to copyright your work. However, if the answer is yes, you should seek alternative license agreements that preserve your right to place your work into the public domain or allow the user to perform certain actions. Popular variants include CopyLeft, notably the GPL, and Collective Commons - two different license agreements that avoid traditional copyright restrictions, by establishing permission to distribute content without restriction.


Licences are a core part of intellectual property rights management. Licences allow the copyright holder to devolve specific rights to use, store, copy and disseminate work to another party.

Licences are typically restrictive, and acceptable uses of the licensed work are carefully delineated. However, copyright holders may wish to encourage widespread sharing and use of their work. In these situations an alternative licensing model may be appropriate.

Deposit Agreement

The Internet is often promoted as a means of getting information to the widest possible audience at the lowest possible cost. Barriers to the flow of information are not encouraged, and few repositories establish formal agreements with depositing authors.

Although mutual benefit is the primary goal of many collaborative projects, some method of formalizing the relationship between author and distributor is useful. A deposit agreement can be used to define a consensual contract between the depositing author and the repository, clarifying the rights and obligations of both.

The deposit agreement dictates several requirements of both parties:

Licencing Terms

The first aspect of a licence agreement that should be determined is the licencing terms. This indicates the distribution type permitted. Two types exist:

  1. Exclusive distribution Exclusive licenses impose specific and wide-ranging restrictions upon distribution. They are primarily used for commercial repositories that are restricted by copyright or charges that non-exclusive distribution will devalue the content.
  2. Non-exclusive licenses Non-exclusive licenses, typically found in academic-orientated repositories offer a useful alternative to commercial distribution that encourages the author to voluntarily submit work as a method of gaining wider public exposure. These non-exclusive licenses establish the rights of the depositor to submit work to differing repositories at a subsequent date without legal restrictions.

To protect the organisation from legal threats at a later date the licence agreement requires several issues to be considered during the submission lifetime. In the initial stages the repository should establish content ownership, audience and potential use, migration and distribution rights. In the long-term the repository should consider withdrawal criteria.

Initial Stages of Development

Establish ownership
A licence agreement must first establish whom the owners are, and if it differs from the author. This may help to minimize the repository's legal liability by formally establishing that the depositor holds the necessary copyright to deposit the material and is able to do so without infringement.
Confirm ownership
The licence agreement should clearly indicate that the depositor retains ownership. This is a particularly important inclusion in a deposit agreement, designed to protect the repository from potential legal action taken as a result of the actions of the author. Equally, the deposit agreement can help establish that the author is not legally responsible for ensuring the accuracy of the information they have provided if, for example, it later becomes out-of-date.
Audience and potential use
In some circumstances, particularly exclusive distribution, a licence agreement will need to establish terms permitted by the author relating to potential usage. This may be prompted by concerns that wide dissemination will damage the long-term value of the content. Institutional repositories may wish to clarify with depositors that deposited e-prints will only be used for non-commercial or academic uses.

Mid-term Considerations

Migration Strategy
For repositories such as the AHDS a migration strategy will be particularly important. This enables the repository to migrate the content to a different file format if the original submitted format becomes obsolete.

Long-term Considerations

Withdrawal criteria
The licence agreement should establish the situations under which the author may withdraw their work from the repository and whether the repository can continue to hold relevant metadata records after it is withdrawn.

Licence agreements should be considered an essential part of an e-print repository's operation. They can resolve many of the potential problems that might arise. For the repository, it provides a formal framework that defines what the repository can and cannot do, making it easier to manage the e-print in the long-term while helping to reduce its legal liabilities.

Alternative Licences

To identify if an alternative licence is appropriate, the following questions should be addressed:

If the answer to these questions is yes, then an alternative licence agreement may be appropriate.

The developer has a number of options when planning to release their work: including creating their own licence or using an existing one. Both options have recognisable benefits. The bespoke licence allows the developer to define their own terms and conditions, while rejecting conditions with which they disagree. However, the creation of a licence can be a long process that may result in the licence containing legal loopholes.

An alternative is to use an existing 'copyleft' licence. Copyleft is an umbrella term that may refer to several similar licences. When choosing a licence, the developer must consider their own needs:

Creative Commons

Many authors argue the traditional copyright restrictions opposes the free distribution of digital works, whether they are text, graphics, or sound, on the Internet. This could be for a variety of reasons; the author wishes to spread their ideas; they wish to attract feedback on their work, etc. For these purposes, traditional copyright and public domain licences are unsuitable.

Creative Commons is a particularly popular licencing model available to all creative works. It is therefore usual to find it applied to Web sites, scholarship, music, film, photography and literature that are not traditionally covered by similar distribution schemes.

Creative Commons (CC) refers to a movement started in 2001 by US lawyer Lawrence Lessig that aims to expand the collection of creative work available for others to build upon and share. The Creative Commons model makes a distinction between the big C (Copyright) meaning All Rights Reserved and CC meaning Some Rights Reserved. It does so by offering copyright holders licences to assign to their work, which will clarify the conditions of use and avoid many of the problems current copyright laws pose when attempting to share information.

There are a series of eleven Creative Commons licences available to download from the Web site. They enable copyright holders to allow display, public performance, reproduction and distribution of their work while assigning specific restrictions. The six main licences combine the four following conditions:

Icon for Attribution Attribution - Users of your work must credit you.
Icon for Non-commercial Non-commercial - Users of your work can make no financial gain from it.
Icon for Non-derivative Non-derivative - Only verbatim copies of your work can be used.
Icon for Share-alike Share-alike - Subsequent works have to be made available under the same licence as the original.

The other licences available are the Sampling licence, the Public Domain Dedication, Founders Copyright, the Music Sharing licence and the Developing Nations licence. Creative Commons also recommends two open source software licences for those licensing software: the GNU General Public licence and the GNU Lesser Public licence.

Each license is expressed in three ways: (1) legal code, (2) a commons deed explaining what it means in lay person's terms and (3) a machine-readable description in the form of RDF/XML (Resource Description Framework/Extensible Mark up Language) metadata. Copyright holders can embed the metadata in HTML pages.

The Creative Commons licences were originally written using an American legal model but through the International Creative Commons Project (iCommons) have since been adapted for use in a number of different jurisdictions. The regional complexities of UK law has meant that two different set of licences have had to be drafted for use of the licenses the UK. Work on the licences for England and Wales, released at the beginning of April 2005, was carried out by Oxford University. Consensus on the licences for Scotland, being drafted by Edinburgh University, is still being met and work on Northern Ireland versions started recently (spring 2005).

There are many benefits to be had in clarifying the rights status of a work. When dealing with Creative Commons licenced work, it is known if the work can be used without having to contact the author, thus allowing the work to be exploited more effectively, more quickly and more widely, whilst also increasing the impact of the work. Also in the past clarification of IPR has taken a huge amount of time and effort, Creative Commons could save some projects a considerable amount of money and aid their preservation strategies. More recently, because Creative Commons offers its licence in a machine-readable format, search engines can now search only CC licenced resources allowing users easier access to 'free materials'.

Although Creative Commons has now been in existence for a while there are still issues to be resolved. For example in the UK academic world the question of who currently holds copyright is a complex one with little commonality across institutions. A study looking at the applicability of Creative Commons licences to public sector organisations in the UK is currently being carried out.

Another key area for consideration is the tension between allowing resources to be freely available and the need for income generation. Although use of a Creative Commons license is principally about allowing resources to be used by all, this does not mean that there has to be no commercial use. One option is dual licensing, which is fairly common in the open source software environment.


Copyleft licences such as Creative Commons Licences may promote free dissemination, however there is little encouragement for businesses that wish to make a profit to use them. The solution is to categorise your software under a dual-licence; one for free open-source distribution, the other for proprietary commercial distribution. This model allows a business to take contributions made in the open source version, apply it to their for-cost version and sell it at retail price.

Further Information

Comments On This Document

This section will be used to provide notes on the section, including details of any changes.

April 2006
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