Contesting our Cultural Heritage

On: October 30, 2009
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About Albert Cornelissen
Student of the master New Media at the Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA).


There has always been fear towards new technologies that create new ways of recording and sharing cultural products. The videotape made owners of these products extremely nervous, because it allowed viewers stay at home to record and share what was on the television. This fight has been replayed by users and producers ever since mechanical reproduction made it possible to copy a work.

This all comes down to ownership over cultural archives and who has the rights over preserving our images. With online video services it is possible to access images without going through some form of cultural institution, be it your television provider, the publisher of a DVD or a library that let’s you borrow products for a limited amount of time. They provide user-generated collections. Karen Gracy explains: ‘As institutionally-based collections intermingle with user-built collections, those stewardship activities that defined the identities of archives, libraries, and museums may no longer be seen as the unique realm of cultural institutions.’

A positive outlook would include video archives that solely rely on internet users for building and preserving an archive, without being embedded into a overarching institution. If YouTube is taking as an example it can be argued it started out as a user-generated archive, but slowly shifts into another being, with the takeover from Google as the most significant marker in this evolution. More importantly are the deals YouTube is making with major corporations like Warner. The deal with Warner Music made it possible for users to upload material owned by Warner and make use of their intellectual property by using their material as a source for new products.

The approach of Warner was not one of cultural preservation or giving users easy access to material that belongs to our cultural capital. They were of course in it for the money via advertisement on YouTube and pay-per-view. What this situation brings is not interdependence from Warner, but dependence. The next logical step is the uploading of material by corporations like Warner, which will eventually lead to a closed off archive.

Also, the principles of a user generated archive disappear with the appearance of corporations. With the generation of an archive I’m not only talking about the uploading of videos, but also where these videos are shown on the homepage of a website, which videos are recommended and how they are linked. Isn’t it coincidental that the best viewed videos are almost all music video clips, where in the past they were user generated videos?

Users are more and more sidetracked in favor of the top players in the media world. The fact that our access is restricted and intellectual property is growing out of proportion is one thing, but the interference with the valuation of cultural products is our real loss. Gracy uses the term ‘multivalent cultural heritage’, whereby our cultural heritage is open for interpretation. With online video services there is the possibility to reexamine our past. But as Alexandra Juhasz argues, YouTube, the largest online video service, is not democratic: it favors the popular of today and obscures the products out of this field. The next step is a complete commercialization of YouTube.

Copyright issues date back to the late 19th century, so the current debates are not new. These  debates cloud the real prospects YouTube brings, to contain an archive of our cultural heritage that is generated by users and contested between them. The real intent of corporations may not be to protect their products at all cost, but determining what is popular and belongs in our cultural heritage.

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