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What is inappropriate re-use?

December 11th, 2009 By Douglas Campbell

While the rights debate in my previous post will likely continue to rage in the comments for a while, a recent viral video made me think about one particular aspect of the discussion - how do you define inappropriate use?

The video Frosty the Inappropriate Snowman was created by CBS by mashing up 1960s video clips with current TV audio clips containing adult themes. As no doubt was expected, it was controversial.

In this case the rights holder created it, but it could just as easily have been created by anyone using content that may, or may not, be licenced for re-use. It demonstrates a real, potential scenario for material GLAMs may place online, that straddles the border of inappropriateness.

Many creators want to release their material to be viewed online; they're probably happy to have it included in homework assignments or history documentaries, but when it is used like this it moves into a grey area - and when I say 'grey' I mean the 'black & white' kind of grey; you either love it or you hate it.

As discussed, GLAMs are concerned how others perceive the re-use of material they are entrusted with. Some will think "Yay, that GLAM is out there allowing cutting-edge art to be created, I'm gonna donate everything I've been hoarding in my garage", whereas others will think "That's just appalling, I'd hate my stuff to end up like that, I'll steer clear of that GLAM".

And it's not just the creator/rights-holder's - creative works often pick up a collective ownership, eg. "y'know, that TV show is part of my story, part of my heritage". When something enters the public domain it is owned by noone... and by everyone. It's the same with in-copyright material (except while everyone may feel ownership, only one owner is actually recognised by the legal system).

The (alleged coming soon) second part of my two-part post was going to propose an extension to Creative Commons that adds a new layer of usage conditions relating to 'respect', probably along the lines of the BBC's Creative Archive Licence. I note some of this thinking spilled over into the BBC's Digital Revolution Licence too (this is an attempt at crowdsourcing the creation of a documentary). The definition of respect in these licences focuses on the usual 'don't promote universally agreed-as-bad points of view like tobacco or terrorism' and 'don't bring us into disrepute'. It's unclear whether something like the Snowman video would trigger a breach in 'respect' or not.

So now I'm wondering whether it is really possible to define what is appropriate or not? Do we (or can we) actually know?? Legislation and regulations usually defines a framework then leaves it to case law to nut out the finer details (based on who cares enough about the issue to take it to court). Do we want to get into that? Well, maybe not using the legal system but maybe it could be done through some other discussion process - how about via 'blog law'?? Though that won't come up with a binding decision! :)

To further complicate things, as I noted, it's not about whether something actually is inappropriate, it's whether a person perceives it as inappropriate, in particular, if that person is a current or potential donor.

Inappropriateness is a very personal thing based on your beliefs and experiences, and it is possible that you are out of step with wider society's sense of decency. The Chief Censor tries to walk that line - he tries to align with the average of society's thinking, though, as you may remember from your statistics class, the average is in the middle of the bell curve, which means half the people think the censor is too liberal, while the other half think he's being too conservative!

Is it foolish to try to indicate to users that we'd love you to use GLAM material so long as you respect it, when we don't really know how to define what it means to be respectful?

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