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, 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?

4 thoughts on “Copyright”

  1. I like your point about small museums and institutions not having the time or the budget to keep track of every small detail related to copyright. I think a key issue is the lack of clarity surrounding copyright laws. These laws need to be simpler and not require a law degree to understand all of the hidden nuances.

  2. I just tried reading the actual copyright law and gave up after 2 minutes:

    I think the government should at least translate this into plain language so that independent scholars and small public history institutions can make sense of this. That way, if you can’t afford a lawyer, a person who didn’t attend law school could at least inform themselves.

  3. You’re right that the new digital landscape is allowing policy makers and lawyers to come up with new definitions for what copyright covers. However, are they the definitions we want? I think this is where Creative Commons comes in, trying to ensure it is.

  4. Most of your commentary is rightly about how historians can protect their copyright, but issues also arise when historians want to use copyrighted materials. While those who work in older fields run into these issues less often because copyright has expired on those properties, others struggle to incorporate film, images, etc. in works on and offline because of copyright claims. As you argue these claims cannot be fought by smaller institutions even though most of the time they are in fact being placed in a different context for a different purpose and could reasonably win out in court.

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