... in metadata

On risks & rewards (related to sharing metadata)

15 Oct 2010 | 825 words | copyright europeana metadata technology work

In the light of yesterday’s rather confusing and unconstructive discussion about ‘risks and rewards’ at the Europeanaopen culture 2010‘ conference, i thought that it might be useful to clarify a number of things. If you take a step back from form your favourite grief about copyright/public funding and look at the larger picture the whole risks and rewards discussion is actually quite simple:

Say you are a cultural heritage institution that wants to make digital representations of cultural artifacts (your ‘content’) from your collection available online: First you will need to ensure that you are actually allowed to offer these digital representations online (for example because the artifacts are out of copyright (in the public domain) or because you have managed to obtain permission to do so from the copyright holders). Once you have succeeded in this you will probably make some descriptive metadata about the objects available alongside the digital representations (if you don’t it will be very hard for users to find and to make sense of these digital representations)

Now say you want (or have to1 work with Europeana, what does that mean for your content and your descriptive metadata? You work with Europeana by contributing descriptions about the digital representations that you want to make accessible via www.europeana.eu to Europeana. In order to be able to point people to your content Europeana needs to have these descriptions. In contrast to your metadata Europeana does not need or want you content2.

Now what happens if you give your descriptive metadata to Europeana? Europeana will use it in order to point its users to your content. In order to do so Europeana will transform, combine and enrich your metadata with other relevant metadata that has been contributed by other heritage institutions. In order to fully leverage the possibilities offered by the web it also needs to make your metadata available online without restrictions (this is called linked open data, and if you want to understand why this is amazing you should go read the excellent primer on the next generation European Data Model by Stefan Gradman et al).

Now that sounds scary: ‘your metadata available without restrictions’. So lets break down the risks: First of all you loose some control over your metadata since others can work with it as well. This risk squarely falls into the category of a known unknown since you wont be able to tell right now if that loss of control will have positive or negative consequences. Secondly there is a risk of loosing imaginary revenue3: other parties might somehow generate revenue based on your metadata (this is more if an unknown unknown).

But since there are risks to making available your metadata without restrictions, there are also rewards: if your metadata is not available on Europeana users cannot find your content via Europeana. Being findable via Europeana will bring more users to your content and making your metadata available to Europeana will also result in Europeana enriching your metadata (and you are then free to incorporate enriched metadata in your own system or not).

Now all you have to do yourself is to decide if the risks out-weight the rewards: If they do then you should not make metadata about your content available to Europeana and you will not have to face these risks. On the other hand if the rewards out-weight the risks then you should probably make your metadata available to Europeana (and of course you can always experiment with a small portion of your metadata first to see if your cost benefit analysis is correct, you can also exclude your most valuable metadata or provide subsets).

In the end this really comes down to this: Europeana is a search engine that will help people find your content based on the descriptions of the content that are providing to Europeana. If you don’t provide descriptions your works can’t be found via Europeana and you do not have to face any of the risks described above4.

  1. This depends a bit on how you look at this. if you have accepted funds to digitize your content under the condition that you make it available via Europeana then of course you had the choice not to take those funds. ↩︎

  2. Your content is very similar to the secret code that comes with your debit card here: your bank has no reason to ever ask you for your secret number and Europeana has no reason to ever ask you for your content. if they do something fishy is going on and you should alert the competent authorities. ↩︎

  3. Imaginary revenue is always bigger than actual revenue. Imaginary revenue is created by fantasizing about a yet undefined customer showing up and offering lots of revenue for something that so far you have failed to monetize yourself. ↩︎

  4. Depending on how Europeana will grow not making your descriptive metadata available might also carry a risk: you might become less relevant as an institution. ↩︎

meanwhile... is the personal weblog of Paul Keller. I am currently policy director at Open Future and President of the COMMUNIA Association for the Public Domain. This weblog is largely inactive but contains an archive of posts (mixing both work and personal) going back to 2005.

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