Intellectual Property & the Digital

In library school one of my two favorite classes was Legal Issues in Information Handling: Copyright and Fair Use in the Digital Age, taught by the excellent Dr. Kip Currier. We explored all manner of intellectual property, including patents, trademarks, trade secrets, and copyright. We read Kembrew McLeod’s Freedom of Expression, James Boyle’s The Public Domain, William Patry’s Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, among others. I found my opinions aligned most closely with those espoused by McLeod in Freedom of Expression.

I believe that current American copyright laws are far from what the Founding Fathers had in mind when writing the Constitution. The chapter in Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Digital History show how far copyright has developed since the 18th century. This development has not been beneficial for creators and scholars, but has generated significant revenue for commercial enterprises. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act reveal how extensive copyright law has become. With the DMCA, corporations are now able to control how we use a particular product even after it’s purchased. This level of control over consumer use of DVDs, ebooks, etc. is unacceptable. As Cohen and Rosenzweig note, copyright law is meant to create a balance between copyright holders and users, but the current laws unfairly tip the scale in favor of rights holders, especially corporations. Intellectual property is meant to provide incentives to create original work, encourage competition, and encourage public access. The laws in place do not fulfill any of these policies.

In order to remedy these problems, I propose that copyright laws should be abolished. Rather, we should fully embrace open access policies and Creative Commons licenses. Especially in the world of digital humanities, everything should be available free of charge in order to properly foster public access and the democratization of knowledge. Those who want to profit from their work (and who can blame them?) should implement a system like that of Gregg Gillis, also known as Girl Talk. Girl Talk is a musician who creates mashups of popular songs without the consent of any copyright holder. Luckily for his listeners, he has not to deal with any lawsuits. All of his albums can be downloaded for free from his website with a “pay as you can” system. I realize this is a hopelessly idealist model full of flaws, but perhaps it can serve as a jumping off point for a conversation on intellectual property law.

I believe that PressForward is the future of digital publishing. Such publications as Digital Humanities Now and Journal of Digital Humanities are both available online at no charge. JDH is a well-respected journal among digital humanists, promotes open access, and disseminates scholarly work to a large audience. PressForward, like all of CHNM’s software, can be freely downloaded from the web. Other academic journals should utilize PressForward and make their content freely available online.

I view the AHA statement on embargoing dissertations a reactionist reaction to the threat that open access dissertations pose. One issue is that scholarly publishing houses are concerned that dissertations published online prior to being published in monograph form won’t make as much money. Once again, everything comes down to money. The threat of not making as much, or enough, money, is veiled behind other issues, like the ideas of recent PhD graduates being “stolen,” running the risk of not getting tenure if PhDs do not have a scholarly monograph published, and the AHA’s strict adherence to maintaining a book-based discipline. Rather than money, shouldn’t the issue be the dissemination of ideas? As Trevor Owens writes in his blog, the AHA should be more concerned with that rather than the medium through with those ideas are disseminated, whether it be online or in a monograph. Another topic that should be discussed is tenure. Committees need to recognize that scholarship does not have to reside solely in monographs.

The Google Books case was still undecided when I was in library school and my peers, my professors, and I were eagerly and anxiously awaiting the decision. I was immensely pleased with Judge Chin’s ruling that Google Books constitute fair use. While many found his interpretation of fair use to be incredibly broad, the decision was a win for those concerned with access. Judge Chin notes the many benefits of Google Books in his decision: it’s a valuable finding tool for researchers and librarians, promotes text mining, increases access to books, gives books new life in a digital form, and benefits authors and publishers. Any tool that increases access to books and promotes reading is inherently good.

Copyright and intellectual property law is meant to encourage creativity and accessibility of information, but in reality they are hindering it. The Copyright, Permissions and Fair Use Among Visual Artists and the Academic and Visual Art Communities report explicitly states that one third of visual artists have abandoned their work due to copyright concerns. This is not what the original copyright laws were designed to do. Copyright holders are frightened that their labors won’t result in monetary profit, or, as in the case of the visual artists, that they will unknowingly break a provision of copyright law. The creation and promulgation of ideas should not be about financial reward, but rather should promote learning and scholarship. The current copyright system is broken, and steps need to be taken immediately to fix it. Scholars and non-scholars alike should embrace open access policies and Creative Commons licenses.

Week 12 readings

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *