D-Lib Magazine
July/August 1999

Volume 5 Number 7/8

ISSN 1082-9873
Introduction to Managing Digital Assets

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"...As they place their intellectual properties on electronic networks..[and] in the absence of a management plan, cultural and education organizations will lose control over, and remuneration for, their works, and will be helpless to do anything about it. (page 105)"

By Peter B. Hirtle

Peter Hirtle is Co-Director of the Cornell Institute for Digital Collections at Cornell University and Associate Editor of D-Lib Magazine.

Introduction to Managing Digital Assets: Options for Cultural and Educational Organizations
Diane M. Zorich, 167 pages, glossary, bibliography.
Los Angeles, CA:
Getty Trust Publications, 1999, $24.95.

"Managing Digital Assets" could mean different things to different people. For a systems administrator, it might constitute the file naming conventions and repository architecture that allow digital files to be identified and retrieved. A preservation specialist might assume that a book with this title would contain recommendations on the creation and maintenance of digital resources over time. A webmaster might assume the “digital assets” under her control are the combination of web pages, databases, and scripts that constitute the organization's web site.

Introduction to Managing Digital Assets presents yet another view of "digital assets." For author Diane Zorich, "digital assets" are forms of intellectual property -- primarily copyright. The challenge facing cultural heritage institutions is how best to protect and exploit their intellectual property in the digital environment. Unless the cultural heritage community acts quickly, Zorich argues, "it is at risk of having its intellectual property subsumed by commercial interests that can bring content to networks faster and more efficiently."

Zorich argues forcefully that the current models for the licensing of intellectual property, where cultural heritage institutions directly negotiate licenses with interested users, will not scale for the networked environment. She suggests that in order to maximize the return on their intellectual property, museums and libraries will need to cooperate with an intellectual property service provider. Utilizing a survey of intellectual property management providers, including groups as diverse as ASCAP, the Copyright Clearance Center, and the JSTOR project, Zorich examines how intellectual property is managed in other fields and identifies issues that cultural heritage institutions may wish to consider when outsourcing management of their intellectual property.

Introduction to Managing Digital Assets is an excellent overview of many of the issues associated with licensing intellectual property. This book would be of particular benefit to anyone building an electronic rights management system, for it outlines the myriad of possible options that would need to be included in such a system.

As a practical manual for cultural heritage institutions, the volume is less successful. In spite of its subtitle, the options available to those cultural heritage and educational organizations that opt not to manage their own intellectual property are relatively slim. In this seller’s market, cultural heritage institutions may not have many options open to them if and when they chose to outsource their intellectual property.

More problematic in Zorich’s discussion is the lack of detail of what exactly is meant by the "intellectual property" of a cultural heritage institution. Unlike artist and copyright collectives, few cultural heritage properties own the intellectual property rights in the objects found in their collections. Most works are either in the public domain or else the creator or the creator’s heirs own the copyright. While cultural heritage institutions may own the metadata they create about the objects, the market for this metadata information is unknown.

What museums and libraries have sought to enforce might be called "para-copyright." They try to control reproduction and use of objects in their collections by limiting access and use of the physical object through license agreements. Recent court decisions, most notably Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel (which was decided shortly before this book was published), suggest that cultural heritage institutions may no longer be able to control the reproduction and use of material from their collections on the basis of their physical ownership of the item. The twin goals of controlling physical access to images while at the same time making them available through networks may, in the end, prove to be incompatible.

The book opens with the observation that "intellectual property rights are a major barrier for cultural heritage organizations that wish to place their content on digital networks." Intellectual property rights are an impediment to the use of digital networks only if one wishes to continue to operate and manage cultural institutions by traditional methods. Digital networks can become enabling if we use their presence to rethink what we mean by intellectual property rights in exciting new ways.

Copyright (c) 1999 Peter B. Hirtle

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DOI: 10.1045/july99-bookreview