Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Who Owns Visitor Content?

The Tug-of-War - IMG_3934
Originally uploaded by jeroen020.
Pop quiz: You’re developing a traveling exhibition on climate change. You have a kiosk in your museum where visitors can record 30 second videos of themselves sharing their personal opinions on global warming. Can you use those snippets in a set piece for the traveling exhibition?


You have an exhibit that takes photos of visitors and lets them manipulate them. Can you use those photos in a montage on your website? Can you broadcast the photos to the web to be manipulated by web visitors in an “online exhibition”?


Media release form to the rescue? Not likely. Media release forms are (typically) used in formal situations—promotional shoots, program recordings—in which the museum, not the user, dictates the circumstances and use of the content. Exhibits and programs that invite visitors to contribute on a more informal basis are a new conundrum. Most museums are playing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” assuming visitors will accept the interaction as part of their museum experience and not think about the ownership of what’s made. But if we’re moving towards more integration of user content in museums, ownership can’t be swept under the rug. Should every interactive begin with a “click to agree” release listing potential uses? Should staff resolve never to use the content for purposes outside the exhibit at hand? What’s expected, and what’s appropriate?

The first thing that made me really think about this was Christine Roman’s talk at ASTC 2006 about a novel podcasting program at the Saint Louis Science Center, in which youth in the museum develop their own podcasts. IF this was a program that was web-based (instead of happening in the museum), there would probably be some boilerplate content on the website explaining the museum’s rights of use. But these boilerplates aren’t common in physical exhibitions. Who owns those podcasts? At the time, Christine wasn’t sure.

Let’s explore some of the potential approaches to this issue:
  1. Full Disclosure. Every museum element that allows visitors to generate content has explicit labeling about ownership and potential use of the content. I’ve never seen this approach, but I can imagine some museums going for it, especially those in which children make up a sizeable chunk of the visitorship. It seems like the most iron-clad, clear approach for a risk-averse museum, and it promotes awareness of privacy issues. On the other hand, it’s clunky, promotes a culture of fear, and may turn a lot of people away from individual activities unnecessarily.
  2. Restricted Use. The interactive “owns” the content. Visitors can’t walk away with it, but the museum can’t export it for other uses. No explicit labeling. This is the way I assume most museums currently deal with video kiosks and the like. However, my guess is that the thing that holds museums back from exporting the content for other uses is lack of quality and lack of flexible technology, not a concern for visitor ownership/privacy. In a world of 2.0, this seems like an inadequate approach, both for the visitors and the museum. The visitors may want a personal webpage of their content that they can access later. The museum may want to share that content with virtual visitors. I’d love to see a video kiosk that directly feeds each entry into a YouTube account, so that virtual visitors can view and curate the content (heck, I even wrote a post about it). But I can’t imagine a museum doing that in good conscience without informing visitors of the literal world-wide audience for their cinematic expression.
  3. Visitor Owned, Museum Operated. The interactive is a tool the visitor uses to create content that they then own. Another common approach, especially when the content at hand is physical stuff. If you make an origami box at the art museum, you get to take it home with you. There are also some museums offering computer stations at which visitors can use the web unrestricted—which means they can also create content outside the museum’s purview. But this approach limits the museum to being a generic platform for creation, rather than connecting visitors to museum-owned or –licensed artifacts.
  4. Umbrella Policy. The museum develops and clearly posts one policy towards content generated in the museum, physical, virtual, or media. This is the most obvious way to go, and yet, I’ve never seen signage of this type in a museum. I’ve seen plenty of signage telling me what I can’t do with the museum’s content (i.e. take photos), but I’ve never seen signage telling me what I and the museum can and can’t do with my experience. Website privacy policies are not on the hot-for-summer reading lists. And yet every museum and institution that solicits any kind of user content on the web knows that they must have one.

It’s not trivial to develop a policy that covers all kinds of data collection, user creation, and content sharing under one roof. I counted six related documents on Youtube’s homepage—a code of conduct, safety tips, copyright notice, privacy policy, and terms of use. It’s not just about legal use (both of user information and museum properties), it’s about informed use. Despite whatever 14 years of military law might suggest, “don’t ask, don’t tell” ain't enough.

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