Particularly with older acquisitions, publishing on the web (or elsewhere for that matter) is virtually impossible since ongoing copyrights simply didn't account for the digital world. Institutions are charged with stewardship and yet profoundly restrained against publishing.
The tension between wanting to share lovely things and potentially being sued for it is sour and risky, and yet it's a risk that some institutions have allowed themselves to take when joining The Commons on Flickr. Allowing themselves to claim "no known copyright restrictions" is a good faith assertion with a caveat. If a copyright claim is proven, then they can retract the photograph that was published, no harm done.
I was referred to the work of a psychologist called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi by Russell Davies (here). Csikszentmihalyi talks about how similar we all are, and that all humans generally want is happiness. (That is one hell of a paraphrasization, but I bought one of his books to find out more.)
I like the quotation Russell drew out about individual's opportunities to create affective flow and how it might be used by all of us to stamp importance and meaning on events or things in our lives that we believe should be preserved and therefore remembered.
To remember the past is not only meaningful in order to create and maintain your personal identity, but it can also in itself be a very pleasurable activity. [..] To keep the past registered can contribute to quality of life. It frees us from being enslaved by the present and makes it possible for our minds to visit the past. It makes it possible to choose and in our memory keep events that have been particularly pleasant and meaningful and thereby “create” a past that helps us to deal with the future.
In a similar vein to Creative Commons' recent work on ccRel, "how license information may be described using RDF and how license information may be attached to works," I'd love to see a similar marker in the CC infrastructure which explicitly gives license to preserve works. The idea that an individual could mark her work as worthy of preservation if there's an institution that thinks it's warranted seems to me an affective declaration by an artist that she believes something she has created should be remembered.
I was recently shocked by a slide in the presentation Joi Ito gave recently at eTech in San Jose, where he referred to research done for the Eldred vs Ashcroft, where you can see that works in the public domain have markedly shrunk thanks to the ability to extend copyright.
Public institutions are in the perfect position to assertively encourage artists and estates to actively contribute to the public domain, whether by relinquishing control over copyright entirely, or by attaching a Creative Commons license to the works accessioned by the institution. I believe that immediately inserting this advice and protocol into registration processes in institutions throughout the world should be a priority. Institutions are already trusted by their constituents, so have a broad platform to instigate a proactive change to this defensive movement against the ongoing creation of public works.
Many are starting to worry about "digital black holes," losing our precious digital "things we'd save if there was a fire." Certainly, long-term access to digital information is an unsolved problem, but, institutions that are experts in physical conservation should be the groups we look to for guidance and expertise in digital preservation too, I think. We can pave the way for their support by declaring our desire for preservation proactively, wherever relevant or possible.
Update: In looking further at the Legal Code that describes, for example, the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License, it seems that this idea of preservation could fall under the general "make, distribute or perform" a copy of something, to make a "public performance" of an artifact, and if so, preservation might be seen as implicitly permitted:
"Publicly Perform" means to perform public recitations of the Work and to communicate to the public those public recitations, by any means or process, including by wire or wireless means or public digital performances; to make available to the public Works in such a way that members of the public may access these Works from a place and at a place individually chosen by them; to perform the Work to the public by any means or process and the communication to the public of the performances of the Work, including by public digital performance; to broadcast and rebroadcast the Work by any means including signs, sounds or images.
But, I still find myself wondering whether a "public performance" is quite the same as a representation of the intent to explicitly preserve, and indeed whether this directive deserves specific treatment with regards to active archiving. Perhaps it's a question of whether something's of archival quality or not.
Thanks to Lila Bailey for her comments on this idea.
Update (April 23): Here's a blog post from CC, written back in March, 2006: Digital Preservation as Cultural Environmentalism? By applying a Creative Commons license to your work you’re saying “please share” and (in some cases) “please remix” and also “please preserve for posterity” or more simply — “please backup!”
(Guess I missed that.)