I found the readings for this week a bit abstract. The historical overview of the development of copyright law and the shifting balance between private and public interests that drove these changes was appreciated. However, I still don’t know in practice what the current copyright law prevents me from doing. For all I know, I’m violating it every time a photocopy an article and distribute it as course material. So, I’m finding it a bit hard to respond to how copyright law might pose a challenge for digital historians. 

The most obvious lesson that came out of the Lessig reading was that there is now a world technological infrastructure, most of which I don’t understand, that is tied up in this issue of copyright. Not knowing how to hack into JSTOR, I couldn’t violate copyright law even if I wanted to. Also, corporations that distribute creative content have lobbied to change copyright law at the expense of the interests of creators/authors and the public—the two entities the original copyright laws were intended to protect. I get what this means for authors; they make less money for their labor because they need these corporations who control access to distribution networks. And I get what this means for the public. Information and culture are increasingly a privilege, not a right. But I’m not really sure what this means for historians working in other roles, as archivists or curators. 

I’m probably in violation of all kinds of copyright laws with my digital archive project. Of the few journal articles that I linked to my site, I asked the authors permission first. But now I’m unsure if authors even have the power to grant that permission. And I never bothered doing a property transfer deed when I conducted my oral history interviews; and as long as I have a say, I won’t do them. Asking someone to sign a contract after a serious conversation that required a great deal of trust feels really inappropriate. Technically, I believe these interviews are their property. And I’m not sure if I’m allowed to “borrow” their property on my site, the way you borrow a friends hedge clippers to fix your shrubs. And there are probably answers out there, buried in legalese; but I’d rather proceed as I’ve been doing, hoping that it will all work out. Is this guerrilla archiving? 

Like in most areas of my life, the biggest challenge I face is money. I work too much and I’m paid too little, so I don’t have time to try to decipher legalese or hire a lawyer. Independent scholars, authors, and creators are at a huge disadvantage to institutions that own the infrastructure controlling access to copyrighted materials and has lawyers at their disposal. How can we even out this imbalance in power? 

4 thoughts on “Copyright”

  1. I also found these readings unsettling as they opened up many questions that remained unanswered. Of course, there’s value in highlighting the possible legal dangers of working as a historian on the Internet but the ambiguous conclusions could discourage others from working on important digital projects like yours. There is absolutely money involved in researching these issues that favors certain content creators over others. Is there perhaps an online site that individuals and smaller institutions could easily consult to discuss standards, share experiences, and debate permissions? If not this seems like an obvious solution to avoid unnecessary and common legal problems.

  2. I like your point about historians violating copyright and not even knowing. I think that historians need to educate themselves on current copyright but money is a very important factor in determining what a historian can and cannot do. I do not have an answer for your closing question but I think that it is something that is essential for lawmakers to think about.

  3. I like your nod towards guerilla archiving. What would a more accessible world (and academic work) look like if more people engaged in guerilla archiving/cataloguing/etc?

    I found myself nodding in agreement throughout your entire blog post and I think your final paragraph hit the nail on the head perfectly. After reading about all of this, what is there actually “to do?” The entire system seems to function on a “donʻt screw up otherwise weʻll have to crack down” basis. So we donʻt ever actually know whatʻs going on until way, way too late (not wholly inaccurate of how the entire system is run to be honest…).

  4. You’re right, the cost of going up against a suing corporation is horrifying. Even if the corporation loses and has to pay the legal fees of whoever they challenge, those fees would be barely noticeable. And if the corporation doesn’t have to pay the other party’s legal fees, it’s unlikely they’ll recover. Like you say, it seems unfair for individuals to be in such a more vulnerable position. Could there be a way for litigating corporations to be as at much risk when they pursue a lawsuit as the individuals they threaten? Maybe by raising the legal fees steeply by the worth of the institution?

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