Digital technology is being used to conserve the Mogao Grottoes
of Dunhuang, in northwest China's Gansu
The "Digital Dunhuang" project, which aims to pool all the
treasures from Dunhuang, has also paid close attention to protect
its intellectual property rights (IPR) in the digital era.
The Dunhuang Academy, solely authorized by the Chinese
Government as the official institute in charge of the protection,
research and management of treasures in the Dunhuang grottoes, has
announced that it holds all rights to images of the ancient
treasures under Chinese IPR laws.
It has obtained copyrights to digital images of the murals,
statues and documents from Dunhuang's grottoes.
No other entity, business or institution, can reproduce,
transmit or display the images of Dunhuang in any form without the
consent of the right holder.
Dubbed "Digital Dunhuang," the ongoing project to protect
cultural relics through new technologies aims to build a database
containing detailed digital information and high quality colour
images of the treasures.
It embraces two categories of work--one is a database of highly
intelligent digital images of Dunhuang treasures and the other is a
digital library containing historical records and research findings
on Dunhuang and related materials, Liu Gang, a top researcher with
the Dunhuang Academy, said in an interview with China
The project, which started in the late 1990s, has drawn
participants from more than a dozen organizations which possess
related collections or have an interest in the conservation of
The project team includes the Dunhuang Academy, the National
Library of China based in Beijing, national libraries of the United
Kingdom and France, the Russian Academy of Sciences and the
US-based Mellon Foundation.
The most eye-catching part of the digital project is said to be
the digital shooting of the grottoes, or Virtual Caves.
With financial support from the Mellon Foundation, the shooting
started in 2000, and was undertaken by several academic organs,
including Northwestern University in the United States.
State-of-the-art digital photographic technology, capable of
capturing the cave murals invisible under natural light or
obstructed by the structure of the caves, was used, said Liu.
The introduction of digital technology will help upgrade
conservation efforts, including the control of tourist numbers, to
preserve irreplaceable cultural heritage.
Scholars are paying more attention to the academic aspect of the
use of innovative digital means to theoretically eternally
conserve, especially in an undisturbed way, the country's
magnificent cultural heritage, including Buddhist manuscripts,
painted scrolls and other historic documents.
The city of Dunhuang, adjacent to the crossroads of the ancient
Silk Road, owes its fame today to the Mogao Grottoes, one of the
world's most important sites of ancient Buddhist culture.
The grottoes, also known as the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas,
contain some 2,000 clay sculptures and more than 45,000 square
metres of murals, dating back to the 5th to14th centuries.
The grottoes were put on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list
Of the 735 caves, about 492 remain intact. But all have been
subjected to various kinds of damage or indignities to some extent,
from long-term exposure to the elements to the smoke of fires made
by tourists and locals, according to specialists from the Dunhuang
Damage also threatens from the modern perils of mass tourism,
where moisture from the breath of visiting crowds can impair
delicate murals that have survived for centuries in an arid desert
climate, specialists acknowledged.
And down the years treasures removed from the grottoes have
found their way into museums, libraries and research institutes
around the world.
Studies on Dunhuang began in 1900, when the Dunhuang Library
Cave, which had been sealed for 850 years and housed more than
50,000 relics, was accidentally found by a Taoist priest.
Some of the Dunhuang relics were taken out of China in the early
years of Dunhuang's discovery and acquired by collectors in the
United Kingdom, France, Russia, Japan, India, Republic of Korea and
But not all of the Dunhuang collections overseas are available
to researchers or the public. Demand for access from the scholars
is another key factor behind the Digital Dunhuang project.
In May last year, a digital Dunhuang website in Chinese opened,
allowing viewers to browse nearly 10,000 titles of digitized
records and 300 images, murals and sculptures.
The Digital Dunhuang project demonstrates how new technology can
"virtually" reunite materials scattered across the globe and will
give new opportunities for scholarship in art history,
archaeological linguistics, religion and other disciplines, experts
IPR protection in a digital world
The development and application of digitized technology, in
collaboration with Internet services, is expected to bring together
again the scattered Dunhuang treasures and expand the scope of
research into Dunhuang, said Liu.
"The national treasures of Dunhuang would have likely been
exploited by the Internet without any compensation if intellectual
property rights protection had not been introduced," said Liu.
The academy has adopted a litigation strategy to encourage a narrow
interpretation of the fair use of Dunhuang images to bar intrusion
of their exclusive rights.
The academy has signed four contracts since May 2000 with the
Mellon Foundation to highlight its exclusive property and
copy-rights over Dunhuang images.
The contracts specify the IPR of all the caves' images included
in the process of digitalization.
The IPR of the film negatives and digital images of Dunhuang,
produced by both sides, solely belong to the Dunhuang Academy,
state the contracts.
When disputes occur, both sides have agreed to resolve them in
accordance with Chinese law and regulations or to seek mediation
from the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration
Furthermore, new copyright protection technology has been
implemented including pay-per-view technology, click-through
barriers and digital watermarks which embed information about the
rights owner into video, audio or graphics files.
"The legal and technical measures in place will help protect the
intellectual property rights of Dunhuang, and could have
significant influence on other aspects of cultural heritage
protection," continued Liu.
The Dunhuang Academy has employed a set of strategies to
identify and maximize control over its IPR assets, in order to
secure an economic return and to control the misuse and improper
representation of Dunhuang images, he said.
The academy chose the non-profitmaking Mellon Foundation as its
partner to digitize Dunhuang's treasures, in light of the
foundation's reputation in aiding and promoting the well-being of
mankind through charitable, scientific, literary, and educational
means, explained Liu.
"Co-operating with non-profitmaking organizations will help
guarantee a better protection of our intellectual property rights
and bar commercial exploitation of the relics," he said.
In recent years, IPR owners have begun feeling very threatened by
the advent of the Internet, a tool of perfect reproduction and
unprecedented distributive scope.
In the late 1990s, rights holders and legal experts began
proposing changes to Copyright Law.
In 2001, the amended Copyright Law was issued and introduced
with computer and Internet related property right protection
clauses. The Supreme People's Court then issued a judicial
interpretation on how to resolve computer and Internet related IPR
"The country has provided a specific legal environment to
protect computer and network related IPRs," said Li Shunde,
professor of law with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
One of the virtues of the Web is its reach--the ability to
widely distribute digital works less expensively and faster than
ever before. The downside is the lack of control creators and
rights holders are able to exert on the subsequent dissemination
and use of their work, said Professor Li.
"Rights holders need to increase self-protection awareness and
to make their rights extend into the digital environment," added
In 1996, the World Intellectual Property Organization regarded
the storing of products in digital form in the electronic media as
"copying." Offering digitized works for others to skim, read, copy
and print through networking also amounts to "copying."
People who download, copy or print the works of others without
the authors permission violate copyright laws and are liable.
At a virtual library, books are digitized and distributed
The current laws in almost all countries stipulate that a book's
publication, circulation and usage involves intellectual property
rights. And this applies to electronic books, continued Li.
China's first National Digital Library is expected to become the
country's main online information center and service database when
completed in 2007.
Researchers in library and information sciences, engineering and
computer science have combined to better protect digital copyright
by introducing such measures as charging browsers and using codes
and digital watermarks to prevent illegal downloading.
(China Daily January 10, 2005)