February 3, 2015 by jjackson39
In examining both Cohen and Rosenzweig’s chapter on ‘Owning the Past’ as well as the online postings by Cornell, OCLC and TRLN regarding the myriad of copyright issues academia faces in the digital realm, we see that a close examination of the rules governing copyright can often obscure the legalities further, as opposed to illuminating them. Regardless it’s our duty as historians to show due diligence when presenting sources in a digital format so that we present the best and clearest information possible to interested parties, while respecting rights holders and protecting organizations we work for from potential liabilities.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive for Cohen to state that historians should not be overly concerned in regards to utilizing works still potentially in copyright the careful analysis of Supreme Court rulings, particularly those of the past 50 years seems to assuage some concerns academics may have about potential penalties. The clearest argument that is made in Chapter 7 is the fact that these arguments as far as the courts are concerned are not even close to being settled and not only that but various judges have different interpretations as do the lawyers who argue the cases. This does not obviously give us in academia carte blanche to proceed as we see fit, it does however remind us that much like the histories we study the answers are never as cut and dry as we may wish that they were.
Both the TRLN piece on their interpretation of copyright policy and the Cohen reading make a similar plea, though to different groups involved in this battle. Cohen notes that while we as historians may at times have valid arguments to make regarding infringement of our own work, we nonetheless should be cautious about pursuing such action as it doesn’t promote learning or scholarship. TRLN similarly states that while some copyright holders may still exist for portions of collections that they jointly hold, the efforts of the archives consortium are purely academic, thus attempting to prevent lawsuits from potential rights holders.
It would be remiss to not mention another issue that faces anyone who has written or is planning to write and publish in hard copy, works that deal with the ever-changing digital realm. Digital History is now a nine-year old book that, while still very informative lacks the inclusion of countless challenges, shifts in policy, and court rulings on what are acceptable forms of ‘fair use’ along with modifications to laws such as the DMCA. In the case of these shorter online guides, they can be updated and modified quite easily as warranted, while even if a new edition of Cohen and Rosenzweig’s book comes out next year, future changes will again render parts of the book less than useful. This just further highlights the almost sisyphean task that we as historians face in respecting existing laws while best trying to present information to the public at-large who simply need the right information to help them make educated decisions regarding preservation policy.