As a public historian working within a digital framework, copyright is making my life difficult. How can public historians make history accessible when they can’t post things online for fear of being sued? For example, I’m looking at a journal from the 1870s, but the only version to which I have access is a reprint from 1970, which is presumably protected under copyright. Now I say presumably because it says copyright in the book, although I am sceptical because the original work, created in the 1870s, is squarely within the public domain, and there does not seem to be any value added in the re-released copy. Furthermore, some companies have the habit of unjustly claiming copyright on works that are in the public domain. The current copyright system hinders users like historians because it is up to us to figure out what is copyrighted and what is not. While this sounds simple, it is anything but (see Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Owning the Past). First of all, there is no unified idea of copyright – it is a constantly shifting set of rules. In the tradition print medium, right-holders typically will simply charge someone a fee for the ability to use their material in a book or article, however many will not allow the work to be posted online, regardless of the cost. It also differs by country, and since the internet recognizes no political borders, this is an issue. Many copyrighted works are out of print, and tracking down the rights-holders can be tricky, if not impossible. Some historians say that when you do not know if a work is copyrighted, move on and avoid possible trouble. However, that brings us back to my original point: how can public historians use contemporary documents to help explain history when we’re told we don’t have the right to use the document. Copyright needs to be rethought. The free software movement and ideas such as copyleft (see Stallman’s The Free Software Definition) are taking hold. However, the traditional views of copyright are well-entrenched, and bolstered by corporations with deep pockets and a lot to lose. As such, proponents of free software and copyleft have their work cut out for them if they expect to either change the current system, or create a new one.
I would like to end with two related quotes, the first by Thomas Jefferson (taken from Paul Courant’s “Scholarship and Academic Libraries (and their kin) in the World of Google”), and the second from Banksy, a graffiti artist and author of the ironically copyrighted book Wall and Piece.
“If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it.”
Thomas Jefferson (1813)
“Any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It belongs to you. It’s your to take, re-arrange and re-use. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.”