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Copyright Confusion

Reading Response

This week we learning about copyright in the digital world. I currently work as the Assistant to the Editor for the Journal of Urban History and I’m excited to learn about this topic, since copyright, fair use, and the public domain are something I encounter every. single. day. Each image that an author uses in their manuscript has to be vetted (by me) so I see multiple images, maps, photographs, screenshots, advertisements and more and I have to work with the author to determine the copyright. Here is just a sampling of the types of questions I ask on a daily basis: Where did you acquire the image? Who owns the rights to the photograph? Do you need permission or does it fall under fair use? If you need permission, who grants it? Does it belong to the photographer or the archive? As you can see, owning the past is a very very tricky business…

As we have learned from this weeks readings, the introduction of the digital world has introduced a whole new platter of problems in terms of copyright. Now we deal with copyright that involves recordings, sound clips, videos, software formats, etc. Does anyone remember the controversy when singer Katy Perry was accused of stealing the same drum and piano background from lesser known artist Sarah Bareilles? Fans did a mashup of the two songs and showed that the beats per minute (bpm) matched to 92.5. This brings us to Vaidhyanathan’s question of “Who is Copyright for?” Has the law, as he states, “lost sight of its original charge: to encourage creativity, science, and democracy and instead now the law protects the producers?” He later states, “copyright should be for students, teachers, readers, library patrons, researchers, freelance writers, emerging musicians, and experimental artists.” If stronger copyright laws had been in place, would Perry have been able to (for lack of better terms) copy, Bareilles’ sound?

Examining Roy Rosenzweig’s “Should Historical Scholarship Be Free,” poses another interesting dilemma. He expands on the idea that most historians are on the payroll of a state university, who’s support makes it possible for historians to complete research and produce scholarship i.e., “public support underwrites almost all historical scholarship.” So should historians give it back to the public? Does it belong to the public? In a sense, yes, I think it does. In the history world, you consistently hear about historians in the ivory tower. We help build the tower and “the gates erected by Project Muse, the History Cooperative, Blackwell, Proquest, and other commercial and non-commercial entities” that keep the public away from our intellectual property (unless they’d like to pay, of course). But then we double back to Vaidhyanathan’s idea of the author as a producer. If we consider historians as producers of work, then they should own what they write, and they should be fairly compensated for the work they do.

How does the web and the digital world of history play into the confusing world of copyright? In Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, they list a variety of ways in which the digital world has “reconfigured the legal landscape,” including:

  • The capacity of digital media available on the web makes it more difficult to find the original creators of text/images, as well as increases the amount of text a historian can know put into their own work.
  • The flexibility of multimedia (not just photographs).
  • The manipulation of digital media. A personal example of this includes authors who want to use historic maps, but then draw their own boundaries on it using Photoshop. So now the author has edited the image, and while the original image is not their own, the edited one was produced by them.
  • The accessibility of the amount of history (text, images, media) available to them.

Each of these complicate the term “copyright.” While the law is the law, the web introduces new ideas and concepts that shift and complicate the way authors have to quote, analyze, and credit the multimedia, text, and images they find online. It also complicates the amount of media they should use in personal research, as they results can be endless.

Some of the personal issues I foresee my encountering involving copyright are images used in the creation of my digital platform and accompanying oral interview manual. If I use images involving the UNCC campus, students, or UNCC logos, do I need permission to use them? I plan to incorporate images into most of my work for the digital site as well as the hard-copy manual, and I recognize that I will most likely need to cite each image used. Additionally, I plan to use examples of oral history, including both audio and visual. Since I am producing the “how-to” videos, I guess I am the producer for those works, but the audio (examples of oral history) I will need permission from the interviewee to use their recordings.

I’m still not 100% sure what to think about copyright, history, and the digital world. I struggle daily with understanding copyright and digitization, the modification of images, and the added text to historical photos. After completing this weeks readings, I’m still contemplating how historians (producers/authors/creators) grapple with providing information for free to the public (even though their work may have been produced through the support of public funds). How do we best benefit the public, and society at large, if we lock away our “intellectual property” behind these ivory gates and towers? But also, how are we fairly compensated and cited for the works we produce? I’m intrigued to see what my classmates have to say about this weeks discussion and will make sure to report back to my loyal followers (I’m looking at you Dr. Shapiro).



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