IFLA Brings Library Voices to Discussions on Open Culture, AI

What does Open Culture mean for libraries, creators, and consumers?

2022’s UNESCO World Conference on Cultural Policies and Sustainable Development – MONDIACULT resulted in a declaration that affirmed culture as a global public good. This means States have recognised the benefit that culture can and should bring to all, and governments’ role in providing clear legislation to ensure accessibility and openness.

Concurrently, what ‘Cultural Openness’ can mean has been under discussion among libraries, NGOs, governments and creators. Collectively, we have an interest in ensuring art and heritage locked away from the public and their creators.

As the international community continues discussing what culture as a global public good means in practice, IFLA and likeminded partners are underlining the importance of open cultural content as part of the broader UN Digital Public Goods agenda. IFLA is working to ensure that perspectives from the library field are being heard in these discussions.

Open Culture Roundtable in Lisbon (May)

Johanna Lilja, the National Library of Finland

I was asked by IFLA to represent the Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee (CCH) at the Open Culture Roundtable organized by Creative Commons. The purpose of this event was to start shaping an initiative towards building a UNESCO Open Culture Recommendation. In addition to CC and UNESCO, Roundtable participants came from the fields of law, library science, policy, design, anthropology, history, museum curation, and international organizations. The CC team was Brigitte Vézina, Director of Policy and Open Culture; Connor Benedict, Open Culture Coordinator; Jennryn Wetzler, Director of Learning and Training; and Jocelyn Miyara, Open Culture Manager. Brigitte Vézina also shared thoughts on the event on CC’s website.

Before the Roundtable we met online and shared our ideas of Open Culture. The actual Roundtable day in Lisbon we were divided into small group working sessions and discussions.

We started with the history of Open Culture, which naturally included the history of copyright and ownership. The second step was to discuss the context around Open Culture, including the political climate, internal and outside trends, economic climate, technical factors, stakeholder needs, and uncertainties. The ‘platformisation’ of culture – in which large companies control distribution of media – and a predominant focus on Western ‘culture’ were recognized as risks. Advancing developments in AI were seen to have both potential risks and benefits.

Finally, we considered bold steps that could be taken to move Open Culture forward. More public-private partnerships are needed. Ethics of Open Culture must emphasize a global perspective. Last but not least, economic resources are needed to make Open Culture sustainable.

Picture: Visualization of the third session (© Creative Commons / Abdul Dube and Mona Ebdrup, CC BY 4.0)

The Open Culture Roundtable was an inspiring opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds working with similar questions than we librarians. It is crucial that IFLA – and the library sector in general – are represented in this work which continues in virtual meetings and in the CC Summit in Mexico City in October 2023.

Mozfest, Amsterdam (June)

Matt Voigts, IFLA HQ

I joined Johanna at CC’s Open Culture Roundtable.  I came to the library field from anthropology and am used to considering ‘culture’ as a dynamic, lived practice. It is what you do more than what you put on a shelf. What you can take off a shelf, however, becomes a part of cultural practice and should not be locked away arbitrarily. The Mondiacult Declaration presents an opportunity to advocate for openness and accessibility for culture as a global public good. Heritage informs us best when we can actively engage with it, and libraries play a key role in both preservation and access. Open Culture supports the integration and accessibility of preserved heritage and IP within everyday life.

Creative Commons is active in the area, and its licenses have been important in providing practical ways to share content in line with creators’ and users’ interests. The Lisbon conversation continued in Creative Commons’ session in MozFest in Amsterdam on on Generative AI. The ‘Open’ world has tended to emphasize the value of the commons, which is currently being exercised and tested by AI training models. If you’ve read the news this summer, you’ve likely heard about it – I’ll be speaking on the topic at WLIC as will other library professionals.

The MozFest discussion, however, prominently brought in creators. AI utilizes large amounts of human-created work to enable the creation of new works – and could positively or negatively impact how creators make a living. It could be used to make work easier by taking over time-consuming, menial aspects of jobs (as many technologies have done), or displace skilled workers and their artisanal output with cheap, inferior knock-offs (as many technologies have done). Often the line between the two (art and banality) may not be easily distinguishable – I linked above to the photocopier as an example of ‘technology that made work easier’, but the CC discussion used typesetting as an example of a once prominent, now diminished art.

There are two takeaways I’d like to share I’ve been turning over in my mind. The first is that how we create changes and adapts with time. As one session participant described, our choices are about what skills we want to keep and what tasks we want to delegate to technology. This is the strain of the conversation that doesn’t want AI to do the work of artists and humans to do the work of Roombas. The second key thought is that AI and other technologies should support creatives’ ability to make a living, and consumers’ capacities to access their creations. While ‘openness’ may be framed as something to fear for creative workers, the AI come to take their hard-created stuff, I see a bigger threat in established, powerful commercial entities using licenses, contracts and the law to capture creative works and the tools of creation from creators and the public. Creators’ and libraries’ interests in openness are here very much aligned.

This summer’s Hollywood strikes of the film writers’ and actors’ guilds have expressed concern over AI, which captures both of these takeaways – the need to innovate thoughtfully, in ways that support creative workers. The writers worry that AI could be considered the original ‘author’ of scripts they are called on to ‘re-write’ (and thus they would be denied credit and given less pay). The actors worry that after an hour’s work, AI could be used to modify their likenesses indefinitely. In these cases, studios would continue to profit, and humans would be cut out of the loop. These concerns are less about the technology itself, and more about how it could be used to minimize creators’ legally remunerable contributions. Meanwhile, streaming services are pulling original movies and shows that lack physical releases, depriving creators of residuals, the public of access, and libraries of their long-established role in preserving this heritage beyond immediate commercial considerations.

Creators, the public, and libraries have a shared interest in ensuring these works aren’t ‘closed’. ‘Cultural Openness’ is about more than just ensuring creations remain accessible, but also of ensuring that creators’ contributions aren’t ‘captured’ by licenses. The future will ultimately be determined less by technology, and more by the personal, professional and policy decisions we make about how to use it.