Copyright issues often lay in the background of digital historians’s work as it poses many inconvenient and ambiguous problems to individuals and institutions researching and publishing on the Internet. Copyright law, by its nature, limits the sharing of ideas and materials, which is a major component of digital history.
Of course, copyright protections ought to be regarded to an extent to avoid legal struggles with other content creators and to set a precedent of acknowledging the contributions of others. However, at a certain point, digital historians must step away from their copyright anxieties and trust their ability to understand what materials and ideas about the past fall in the public domain. Most small historical museums and institutions with limited funding and staffing cannot afford to invest too much time or resources into investigating every single tricky legal debate about copyright.
Compared to scholars and writers before the 1990s, Digital historians have a unique relationship to copyright, as their content uses new mediums and reaches new audiences. In many ways, the aspects of the Internet that make it such a valuable tool for historians also make it such a liability to those sharing and publishing materials online. Digital history, in all of its forms, takes advantage of the newness of the Internet to offer novel ways to engage with the past. However, the evolving nature of digital platforms and programs also offers copyright lawyers and policy makers new territory to legally define that often cannot be predicted until issues arise. This characteristic of copyright on the Internet can be unsettling to small organizations and independent creators of digital history content in much the same way that small businesses can feel threatened by the legal and political power of large corporations. In the “Property” excerpt of Free Culture it portrays the Internet as yet another new technology entering the free market that ought not to be given new rules that favor work on older technologies. This idea is interesting when considered alongside the claim by Cohen and Rosenzweig that active policing of copyright is often motivated by trademark concerns.
So what does this mean for public historians on the Internet specifically? Because copyright law is subject to multiple interpretations the rules are not clearcut. This poses particular problems for institutions that are undergoing digitization, digital preservation, and 3D scanning projects. This extra liability is especially apparent when a decades old publisher is difficult to locate or contact. For example, archive.org has made widely available a number of print histories from the late 19th and early 20th centuries about Newark, New Jersey published by individuals who are no longer living. In these cases, how can a small institution be sure that they have rights to each text and all of the images reproduced within them?