January 11, 2008

Mukurtu Contextual Archiving: digital “restrictions” done right

Filed under: law, music — wseltzer @ 10:37 am

I’m accustomed to thinking of digital restrictions in the U.S. intellectual property context. We’re told that DRM use restrictions are trade-offs for getting material in digital form, but generally, the trade is a bad one for the public.

The Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari archive Kimberly Christen helped the Australian Warumungu community in Tennant Creek to construct puts digital restrictions in a very different light.

As Kim described when I met her at a conference over the summer, the Warumungu have a set of protocols around objects and representations of people that restrict access to physical objects and photographs. Only elders may see or authorize viewing of sacred objects; other objects may be restricted by family or gender. Images of the deceased shouldn’t be viewed, and photographs are often physically effaced. When the Warumungu archive objects or images, they want to implement the same sort of restrictions.

They wanted an archive that was built around Warumungu protocols for accessing and distributing materials (in many forms). One of the first mandates was that everyone had to have a password so that they could only see materials that they were meant to see based on their family/country/community status.

Kim’s response was to help construct a digital archive with access controls — ACLs based not on copyright but on the various elements of a person’s community status. Your identity sets your view-port into the archive; the computer will show only items you have permission to see. The community can thus give objects context in the online archive similar to that which situates them offline. As an object’s status changes, the database can be updated to reflect new rights or restrictions.

Yet the Mukurtu’s form of “DRM” is fragile. Users are encouraged to print images or burn CDs, which have no controls built-in.

People can also print images or burn CDs and thus allow the images to circulate more widely to others who live on outstations or in other areas. In fact, one of the top priorities in Mukurtu’s development was that it needed to allow people to take things with them, printing and burning were necessary to ensure circulation of the materials.

Unlike copyright-DRM systems, which fall back to the most restrictive state when exporting or communicating with “unsigned” devices (such as blocking all copying and breaking or lowering playback resolution on high-definition monitors), this one defaults to granting access. It’s up to the people using the system to determine how new and unknown situations should be handled.

Because the Murkurtu protocol-restrictions support community norms, rather than oppose them, the system can trust its users to take objects with them. If a member of the community chooses to show a picture to someone the machine would not have, his or her interpretation prevails — the machine doesn’t presume to capture or trump the nuance of the social protocol. Social protocols can be reviewed or broken, and so the human choice to comply gives them strength as community ties.

One of the lessons of the recording industry lawsuits and growing shift from DRM’d music is that community norms don’t support current copyright law. Rather than fight copyright norms with bad code, we should learn from the Warumungu and build code (and law) to support social practice.

Further good news: Kim says she and Craig Dietrich will be releasing the archive’s code as Free Software.

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