David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Opening up–or locking down–scholarly communication

This week’s readings (Week 13) focused on the interrelated, sometimes opposed, issues of copyright and open access in scholarly (and other) communication.

I greatly enjoyed all of the readings, but the one that resonated with me most was Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture. This well-written book–so well-written that in spite of having plenty of other readings, I didn’t do the graduate student skim (much to my chagrin on Sunday night!)–discusses the formation of the United States’s scheme of copyright, its recent abuses, and presents a moderate, well-reasoned solution to recent issues. In keeping with the Constitution’s original intent (yes, that loaded term) of promoting creativity by both granting and limiting copyrights, Lessig suggests allowing one fifty-year copyright term, renewable. That way, non-commercially-viable works will lapse into the public domain–allowing them to be used and built upon–while forcing registration of still-commercially-viable works. In the meanwhile–particularly after his unfortunate loss in Eldred v. Ashcroft (discussed in-depth and well in this book)–Lessig has promoted the Creative Commons licenses that have recently taken off.

This book resonated with me because of my experiences as a public historian, particularly as a content developer sourcing images for several museum exhibitions while working for The Design Minds, Inc. Because of the current 95-year copyright term, many of these exhibitions took on added expenses–expenses that could be crippling for many of the small museums for which we worked. In a couple of instances, we (or the client, depending on the nature of the contract) coughed up four figures for images. Because we had used largely public-domain images, or images from the clients’ collections, otherwise, in these cases the clients were able and willing to pay those costs. But other times we found ourselves having to substitute inferior images.

This is to say nothing of cases where copyright is uncertain–an issue rearing its head lately in regards to Google Books and the Hathi Trust, or old recordings.

I got lucky the one time I tried to do track down copyright for an old recording. When I was working on the Gold Mining Camp Museum at Monroe Park, I emailed Dick Spottswood of WAMU’s Bluegrass Country (whose delightful show I’m listening to right now) to ask what sort of music might have been heard at a mining camp in Fauquier County, Virginia, in the 1930s–the time and place we were interpreting. He was nice enough to reply and suggest John Ashby, a musician performing around Fauquier at that time. Thankfully, I was able to track down the copyright holder for Ashby’s music after only going through a few people, and gain permission–the person was even happy to provide me a digital file. This worked well for him–it exposed new audiences to Ashby’s music–and worked well for the county’s park authority (owner of the museum), allowing the featuring of a local artist.

But what if I had not been able to track that rights holder down? Would the client and I have decided to take the risk of playing that recording? Or would we have lost that local connection, choosing to play, say, jazz from that period (which Spottswood said would have been heard in Fauquier from Washington radio stations)? I’m guessing the latter, since we would have feared the repercussions of someone coming after us for breach of copyright–that is, if we could have even found Ashby’s recordings.

As Lessig brings up, digital technology is making copyright a bigger issue than before, as the technology allows for easier duplication and derivative works. As we have discussed through the semester, it also opens up new doors for scholarly communication. We can more easily find sources–presuming they are not locked down. Recently I followed a Twitter discussion suggesting that more historians will choose to study the 19th century, because so much 20th century material is locked down due to copyright, thus much harder to digitize and distribute–and not for technical reasons.

We also can disseminate our work in different ways, the subject of the Scholarly Communications Institute’s eighth session. The report–a nice summation of issues we have discussed during class–talked about different ways scholars can communicate using digital technology, going beyond the monograph-article model, and what the implications of those new means are. What of peer review? What of writing for a broader audience? Two lines about that subject particularly resonated with me:

To date, scholarly communication has privileged authors over audience, and many scholars carry this presumption of precedence into the digital realm (10). […] Which audience will take precedence–fellow specialists or the general public? Or if that dichotomy is itself a false distinction in the digital environment–as seems likely–what does it mean for scholarly communication? (11)

Indeed. Is it a false distinction in the digital environment? If it is–and I think it can be–that explains what attracted this public historian with academic leanings toward digital history–the ability to bridge that dichotomy, to fulfill my goal of having one foot in the academic history door, one in the public history door.

This and the other readings also raised the important issue of open access. Since we can, should we make our work readily available? I’m leaning toward yes. While some might worry about plagiarism, the technology makes plagiarism easier to detect. I’d like to hear what others think about this, though.

So digital technology has put us at a crossroads. Will our sources and the products we produce from those sources be locked down and controlled, or will they be open? What are the implications from each of those paths? Thoughts?

1 Comment

  1. David,
    What a great story about the Ashby music! In this case, having access to a resource without the restrictions of purchasing copyright access made a positive impact on your exhibit and as you say, probably rekindled interest in the work of one local musician. The 95 year copyright rule seems a little long, but I am sure it was out of consideration for the living. One issue that comes to mind is the type of information that should have shorter copyright clauses. Right now it seems there is a one-size-fits-all approach, but maybe intellectual work should be considered differently than artistic work, which might be different than personal documents (like those used in genealogy research). Certainly, knowing information about people takes on a different tone when historians or genealogists bring out information that some would rather not reach public venues. In this case, I can see the privacy aspect of maintaining long-term copyrights or privacy clauses. Would a potential museum subject be as willing to turn over documents that did not celebrate a life? If we really want to change the way things are done in publishing, then maybe there has to be differentiation between the types of open access (publishing vs. resources vs. artistic endeavors – fine arts, etc.) or does specificity in copyright and publishing only enhance the status of lawyers at the expense of scholars?

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