Artmob: An Open-Source, Fair Dealing Content Management System for the Arts

Artmob: An Open-Source, Fair Dealing Content Management System for the Arts

Stuart Freen is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

This past summer I was fortunate enough to work on Artmob, an interdisciplinary project here at York. Headed by Canada Research Chairs Rosemary Coombe and Christopher Innes along with Darren Wershler-Henry, Artmob is basically about building an online, open-source content management system for arts and cultural organizations. It’s trite to say that we live in a time of great technological possibility, where a wealth of information can instantly be made available across the planet via the internet. Yet, many arts and cultural organizations have been slow to put their archives online. Practical considerations such as the time, money, and equipment required to digitize works have held them back. Others just don't have the expertise or resources to manage large websites. Furthermore, many arts organizations are quite rightly concerned about the copyright implications of posting archived artworks on the internet. Artmob’s goal is to create a system to help these organizations get their archives online.

What the Artmob team has done, with the help of web developer Bill Kennedy and Stop 14 Media, is create a web site template designed specifically with the needs of arts and cultural organizations in mind. The site itself is fantastic; Bill and his team brought in all the latest web technology and created something like Youtube on steroids. Using the Artmob software, arts organizations can create an online multimedia archive showcasing video, images, audio, the written word, and combinations thereof. The development team has worked closely with and really listened to arts organizations and archivists to create a content management system that really suits their needs. Check out the pilot project, Canadian poet bpNichol’s website, to get a better idea of how the system looks and works.

Beyond aesthetics and usability, the Artmob system has been designed from the ground up with copyright in mind. While a traditional rights-clearing process is expected, Artmob also incorporates some fair dealing tools for cases where the copyright owner is unknown. Many brick-and-mortar archives have been hesitant to post their collections online, fearing that it could open up a can of worms and expose them to litigation. One Toronto archive, for instance, maintains a large archive of theatre programs. Theatre programs tend to have a ton of copyrighted material in them, including photographs, song lyrics, art, etc. Most of these works are un-credited and their authors have long been forgotten, making copyright clearance impossible. When the programs are just sitting in a museum somewhere in Toronto this isn’t really a problem, but once they’re put online a whole new audience and range of issues open up. What Artmob aims to do is encourage organizations to post their archived works first and include an advanced attribution system and discussion forum for resolving ownership disputes later. The idea is to create an open forum where authors and contributors can be identified, orphan works can be claimed, and copyright disputes can be resolved. It relies on the interactive and contributory qualities of the internet, creating a real discussion between a site’s users and owners. The Artmob team believes that these collaborative dispute resolution tools (which have been built into every stage of the site design) are sufficient to qualify many of the sites for the fair dealing exceptions in the Copyright Act, thus legitimizing the “post first, ask questions later” approach. Furthermore, these tools provide context around the creation and cultural heritage of the art works. In addition to Professor Coombe’s wealth of knowledge in this field, the team has been consulting with IP Osgoode in an effort to continue to develop the copyright tools and bring them into accordance with a modern, post-CCH view of copyright law.

I stumbled upon the Artmob website sometime last spring and it immediately struck me as something I’d like to get involved in. Before law school my background was in computer science and I’ve spent some time working in both web design and designing content management systems (at Open Text). Furthermore, I’m a huge lover of art and music and copyright reform is a big research interest of mine. Artmob seemed to be at an intersection of all these somewhat divergent interests and so it was a great fit from the start.

Most of my day-to-day work consisted of legal research on the various provisions and exceptions in the Copyright Act, analyzing how online multimedia archives like Artmob fit into the legislative framework. For instance, one such project centered on the education exceptions in the Act. While many of Artmob’s arts partners have an educational mandate in the broad sense of the word, the team wanted to know how well the exceptions actually applied and for me to develop some research questions for further exploration. As it turned out, the education exceptions are overly narrow for the purposes of digital archives, though forthcoming reforms may open up some new possibilities. Much of the work I did also served an educational purpose for the rest of the team. I drafted several plain-language memos on topics like fair dealing and copyright clearance that were intended to serve as backgrounders for the rest of the Artmob researchers and for our arts partners. Overall my summer experience was overwhelmingly positive; I gained a lot of experience researching, writing, and navigating my way around the Copyright Act, and I completed some work that I’m proud of and that I think will be helpful to other people in the future. The team is obviously passionate about arts and literature, and I really enjoyed the fact that we were creating something which will ultimately lead to the proliferation of Canadian artwork. Keep an eye out on the Artmob website: the second phase of development is nearly complete and a launch party will be happening soon.