Evaluating Copyright and the Use of Standardized Rights Statements

A Progress Report from the Colorado State University Libraries

The Plains to Peaks Collective, the Colorado-Wyoming Service Hub of the Digital Public Library of America, works with its partners to make their historic digital collections more widely available online. Part of that work is to advance the use of these unique items by accurately describing the rights held over an item. This can sometimes be daunting and a time consuming task. However we believe that easily understandable rights information improves access to and encourages reuse of digital collections.

We encourage the use of standardized statements from RightsStatements.org. These 12 statements easily communicate the copyright and re-use status of digital objects to the public. While RightsStatements.org is a great place to start and you may find exactly what you need, the statements may not always suit an institution’s particular need or circumstance. In this case we encourage the use of locally created standardized statements that work in tandem with RightsStatements.org statements.

In this guest post Helen Baer, from the Colorado State University Libraries discusses the Libraries’ experience with the implementation of standardized rights statements.

Progress Report: Adding Standardized Rights Statements to an Institutional Repository1

By Helen Baer, Head, Digital Repositories Unit, Colorado State University Libraries

In conjunction with a platform migration from DSpace to CONTENTdm, staff in Digital and Archives Services at the Colorado State University Libraries began applying standardized rights statements to 85,000 repository records for digitized archives and special collections material in the spring of 2021. Prior to 2021, the CSU Libraries did not use standardized rights statements in its institutional repository, and most of its DPLA rights statements were “Copyright Not Evaluated.”2 CSU’s Office of General Counsel approved a set of new standardized rights statements in February 2021, and remediation work began in March.

The new standardized rights statements are:

  1. Public domain: Material is believed to be in the public domain. However, other rights and restrictions may apply, such as privacy and publicity rights. User is responsible for compliance with all applicable laws. For information about copyright law, please see https://libguides.colostate.edu/copyright.
  2. Under copyright: Copyright and other restrictions may apply. User is responsible for compliance with all applicable laws. For information about copyright law, please see https://libguides.colostate.edu/copyright.
  3. CSU owns the copyright: Colorado State University owns the rights for this material. Please contact the [collecting area] at the CSU Libraries for use information: [collecting area URL].

From February to April 2021, I reviewed rights statements for 58 collections encompassing more than 23,000 records in Mountain Scholar, CSU’s institutional repository. Statements are located in the dc.rights metadata element which is now a required field.

During the project I gathered data about old and new rights statements because I hoped to learn more about the existing rights statement landscape in the repository. I was also curious as to which rights statements were most likely to need to be updated, and I wanted to know how many records were flipped from non-public domain to public domain during the project.

For each collection I recorded the text of the original statement (if extant), the text of the new statement, and how many records were updated. With this “before and after” data, I discovered that the 58 collections yielded 16 different rights statements, some of which were very similar. To make the data more manageable, I assigned a rights statement type to each of the statements. The five types are defined as follows:

  • CSU owns copyright: Rights statement claimed that CSU or a CSU entity holds the copyright.
  • Donor/collection: Rights statement was based on a donor agreement, or was specific to a particular collection; each of these statements was verified by the appropriate archivist.
  • Standardized rights statement: One of the new standardized rights statements had already been applied.
  • Not present/not helpful: There was no rights statement, or statement did not provide useful or actionable information to users.
  • Creative Commons license: A CC license was used instead of a rights statement.

Relative usage of the five different types of rights statements was as follows:

A “CSU owns copyright” statement was present on fully 72% of the records reviewed in this project, and for another 13% of the records, one of the new standardized rights statements had already been applied.

Across the entire project, 21% of the rights statements were updated. As for which types of rights statements needed more updating, I observed that 12% of the statements claiming that CSU owned the copyright had to be corrected, and 4% of the standardized rights statements were adjusted. Not surprisingly, none of the “donor/collection” statements were updated, as they had presumably been negotiated with a donor. All of the “not present/not helpful” and Creative Commons statements were updated, the latter due to a policy change in which license information was moved to a different metadata element in DSpace, dc.rights.license.

During the project, only 395 records were flipped to the “public domain” rights statement. This was disappointing but not surprising, as much of the material in CSU’s Archives & Special Collections is from the twentieth century.

Because the standardized rights statements were new to Digital and Archives Services staff, I thought I might find some errors in their application. Before the project, my impression was that the various “CSU owns the rights” statements had been overused, but the data did not bear this out to any great degree. I also wondered if staff would have trouble determining whether an item is considered to be published or not, but based on the data I gathered during this project, they picked up this skill quickly.

As we continue to review and update rights statements, we hope to empower more researchers to make use of our materials by providing accurate information about the rights status of individual repository items. We are also pleased to be able to direct users to our copyright LibGuide directly from repository records, something we have not done in the past. In the future we would like to contribute public domain images to Wikimedia via the DPLA Plains to Peaks Collective.