Long-term digital archiving
“The legal framework has to change”

Dr. Paul Klimpel teaches courses on copyright law, digitalization and cultural heritage.
Dr. Paul Klimpel teaches courses on copyright law, digitalization and cultural heritage. | Photo (detail): Jürgen Keiper, CC BY 4.0

Digitalization puts libraries, museums and archives before new challenges. In order to preserve our cultural heritage, we need new strategies, says the jurist Paul Klimpel.

Mr. Klimpel, what challenges does the digital age represent for the archiving of cultural works?

Digitalization concerns three large areas, which can’t be considered in isolation from each other. First of all, there’s the purely technical question of how certain data can be secured over a long period of time. This is about the migration and emulation of works and the recording, indexing and networking of information. The technical changes, however, will also have an effect on the organization of memory institutions: it makes a difference whether you write a researched address down on a card or whether address information is automatically integrated into a database. Thirdly, there are many legal issues, especially those pertaining to copyright law.

What are the key digitalization initiatives in Germany?

In Germany, culture is predominantly organized on a federal basis, which is why there are numerous initiatives by individual federal states. At the national level, the German Digital Library [Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek / DDB] is the most important one. It also acts as a national data aggregator of Europeana, the central portal that links various European initiatives and promotes the exchangeability of data via specific technical standards. At the national level, the DDB also has the function of a catalyst. When data are linked there, their importance for our cultural memory increases. Moreover, the Archive Portal-D, a subarea of the DDB, pursues a completely independent approach by allowing searches across archive boundaries.

What should we understand under the term “cultural memory”?

“Cultural heritage” is everything that enters into our collective memory of witnesses to human culture – for example, paintings or novels from the area of high culture. But it also concerns socially relevant objects of everyday culture. Take, for instance, a collection of leaflets from the student movement of 1968: a single leaflet calling for a demonstration may not interest everyone, but as a whole such a collection is of course very important, for scholarship too, in order to make present again the development of our country at this time. Cultural heritage also includes films, music and computer games. They influence our daily life and therefore at least a selection of them should be preserved.

Institutions must be allowed to carry out mass digitalization

As co-author of the “Hamburger Note zur Digitalisierung des kulturellen Erbes” [i.e. Hamburg Note on Digitalization of the Cultural Heritage], you make a case for simplifying the complicated legal situation surrounding copyright protected works in archives, libraries and museums. Why?

Our legal frameworks are not designed for the large-scale digitalization of content and making it available online. In the copyright we have an iron principle: if you want to make a copy of a protected work – and all digitalization is a copy – you need the consent of the author or the copyright owner. But when digitalizing large collections, it’s quite impossible to obtain permission for each individual work.

How can this problem be solved?

We need a solution that allows memory institutions to digitalize large quantities of data without having to check each individual object. This can work by using a collective licenses and paying a lump sum to the collecting society. It can also work by means of legal exceptions. You can argue about how to do it. But that there must be a basis which allows institutions to carry out mass digitalization – on this everyone is in agreement: jurists as well as all important cultural institutions, ranging from the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the German National Library and the Federal Archives to the German Film Institute.

The funding must be put on a permanent basis

Extensive digitalization projects are expensive. How are they financed in the long-term?

In the early days of digitalization there were mainly project-related subsidies. In the meantime, digitalization has become a natural part of the work of institutions. For this reason, the funding of structures for the sustainable preservation of digital artefacts must be put on a permanent rather than a temporary basis. We’ve also reached the political point at which project-related structures must be given a permanent form. And this isn’t always easy.


Tasks like long-term digital archiving aren’t very popular. Long-term backup isn’t visible, and you get applause when something is visible – for example when a digital inventory is available on the internet. So long as there are no great disasters in which digital objects are lost, there will be a lacking public awareness of the problem. The fire at the Amalia Library in Weimar or the collapse of the Cologne City Archives have created an awareness of how endangered physical artefacts are. As a result, more money was made available – for instance, for fire prevention. Probably money will flow into long-term archiving only once important digital research data are lost. Most people go to the dentist only when they have a toothache. Then it’s often too late.

What are the next steps that have to be taken to press ahead with long-term digital archiving?

The most urgent is a change in the legal framework. All other efforts will otherwise always run into this wall and above all devour incredibly many resources. It’s very expensive to hire consultants and case workers to clarify rights pertaining to leaflets and photos. This has to change if we’re to move forward.

Paul Klimpel who has a doctorate in law, was administrative director of the German Cinematheque. Since 2012, he has been a partner in the law firm iRights.Law. Among other activities, he chaired in November 2016 the conference Zugang gestalten! Mehr Verantwortung für das kulturellen Erbe (i.e. Designing Access! More Responsibility for the Cultural Heritage) and teaches courses on copyright law, digitalization and cultural heritage at various institutions.

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