Playing Fair and Doing Scholarship

I have an admission: My eyes glaze over when I am near “legalese” and this includes copyright law. As a result, I tend to be paranoid and overly cautious about citations, sharing, crediting and linking to borrowed ideas. For me, it’s a way to keep from exploiting other people’s work, my own included.

But, there is no need to be paranoid. Rather, be aware of your credits and sources and what you’re intending to do. With regard to my own digital history project, for the podcast and accompanying site, I need to be mindful, citing and crediting those who own the stories told, the content I am retelling, and any creative material used in the process. To avoid any issues with the latter, I am going to compose my own theme and bed music. Each participant will sign a waiver knowing that their interview may be broadcasted and kept digitally. Each source will be cited through a bibliography or credit in the podcast and website. These are all internal measures to make sure other’s original material is properly credited, but externally, I realize I need to then “gatekeep” what I have collected and created as it becomes public so that the respect and rights carry on into the unknown- perhaps even go so far to register my own copyright of the site or podcast.

An active podcast or website is an informative and creative product in a marketplace that understands currency and sees theft like the traditional forms, but also can be open for free consumption- regulating that, either for profit or to safeguard fair recognition and compensation by contributors makes the already complicated issue of copyright more complex. As we have read, in the United States, copyright law is as old as the country itself.  And as the bubble of protective years grew, laws of fair use were enacted, which was significant for historians in that historical data and material would be easier to review and cite without fear of violation. However, the lifetime plus 50 grew mouse ears and expanded to lifetime plus 75 for corporate material. The evolution of the law is interesting in and of itself, but what are the obligations for the digital historian?’

I found the discussion in this same piece about the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to be relevant to those producing digital material using multimedia sources. I think students and academics creating material from research might be covered under Title IV, but the cost of being wrong might be great enough to seek advice anyway before launching the public access to your project. Siva Vaidhyanathan, in Copyrights and Copywrongs  * refers to this expansion of copyright law as the Four Surrenders:

• The surrender of balance to control.
• The surrender of public interest to private interest.
• The surrender of republican deliberation within the nation-state
to unelected multilateral nongovernmental bodies.
• The surrender of culture to technology.

Also in Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Digital History: a Guide…  is this striking idea: “The manipulability of digital data creates another, less common legal issue. You can edit digital images, sounds, and moving pictures much more easily than their analog counterparts. ” The logo one creates, images they generate, etc. are vulnerable to manipulation and theft due to the latent potential of the technology we use to create them. I myself have shared images protected by java safeguards by hitting “print screen” to copy instead of right-clicking.

As my project grows, I will keep in mind the topics brought up in Gail Drake’s illustrative chapter on Intellectual Property Law in Romano and Potter’s book Doing Recent History On Privacy, Copyright,… . Using the issues that civil rights historians and archivists have faced, I took away the intention to think pro-actively. These are somewhat recent events without the wealth of vetted perspective and distance of personal ownership. With oral histories or images, I am able to collect, I will be open to redacting identity if requested or confirm events contained in the interviews if mentioning someone else by name. I think an advantage academically trained historians have is the common practice of citing sources and being aware of what your content is and isn’t and making that clear.

I also found the Fresh Air interview with Lawrence Lessig interesting because as we understand and share the nuances of what we should protect and keep as free access, it is also a larger discussion of what we value and take for granted. Though Lessig didn’t label it as such, it is also a Marxist view of recognizing the labor in production and compensating (or crediting) fairly. Our projects are in one light our “creation” in that we are curating, gathering, decoding or collecting information and making it into a digital artifact, but we are also taking materials from people, from shelves, from points of view that are the raw materials mined by others.

In conclusion, I am still paranoid but not as much. Knowing that I am protected somewhat by law for my good intentions, I will carefully consider the contents of this or any project and be sure not to just name each voice and cite each source, but carry the weight of their contribution and acknowledge my responsibility to volley them with protection and care.

*While it mostly reinforced what we were learning, I would like to suggest Copyrights and Copywrongs by Siva Vaidhyanathan for a handy guide and exploration of copyright law for the Humanities.

History as Res Publica

I have been fascinated by history since a young age. In early memories I find myself looking at family photo albums, books of old movie posters, and captivated by the stories of gods and saints. It makes me feel closer to others to know of their experiences and our shared history. But, as early as high school I began to wonder about the losers of the battle, the peasants out of royal frame, my own ancestors who somehow made it to Appalachia via ports and gates.

For some the idea of a “public history”, one that is accessible and speaks of many voices, is a radical idea. Howard Zinn, an academic “saint” to be sure, is sometimes seen as an American threat because he dared to bring the experiences of those who built the country onto the stage of those who own. This is just one example of the mid-20th Century paradigm shift for the discipline of History (big H) that goes from ivory tower lectures on the greatness of white men to the significant contributions of all human groups in creating the world of the present. Public History is a dynamic telling of historical events using their words, and deliberately excavating obscured lives previously deemed marginal or insignificant.

What I’ve discovered in my first class in the new phase of my life studying public history is that it also encompasses he presentation of this information. Just as C Wright Mills and his peers advocated for “public sociology” to go from academia to social change, history underwent a more “res publica” approach- not for historians but for the people. Canon was revisited to include women, non-whites, etc. (forgive the brevity there). The way in which it is collected also expanded for inclusiveness* and more importantly the intended audience is for everyone, increasing access, scope, reach, application, and listening to feedback. This utilizes emerging technology that can reach schools and libraries as well as public spaces and museums which are aimed at educating and revealing more precise and universal experiences and truths.

The first site I’ll review here is the ROY ROSENZWEIG CENTER FOR HISTORY AND NEW MEDIA (RRCHNM). Essentially they are “a multi-disciplinary team that develops online teaching resources, digital collections and exhibits, open-source software, and training in digital literacy and skills.”  Based at George Mason University, the group collects and lists public history exhibits and programs found online and presents a searchable directory. Think of it as a static trade magazine that highlights individuals, engagement opportunities, and news items related to public history in its many forms. The benefit of such a site is that it can bring you to a collection that might be harder to search casually online. As we know, Google tells you what its friends are doing above all else, and those not in the in-crowd might have a goldmine you’ll never see. Beyond this opportunity to find what you seek you can also browse and find the wealth of other points of view and sites that open up complimentary or contrary information to the more mainstream versions of history that remain in traditional education curricula.

For instance, consider the narratives that can come from exploring these two sites:

  • Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution: a lively introduction to the French Revolution presents an extraordinary archive of some of the most important documentary evidence from the Revolution, including 338 texts, 245 images, and a number of maps and songs. Lynn Hunt of UCLA and Jack Censer of George Mason University—both internationally renowned scholars of the Revolution—served as principal authors and editors. The site is a collaboration of CHNM and American Social History Project (City University of New York), and supported by grants from the Florence Gould Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  
  • Children and Youth in Historywebsite was designed to help teachers and students learn about young people throughout history by providing access to information about the lived experiences of children and youth from multiple perspectives as well as changing notions about childhood and adolescence in past cultures and civilizations. 

The RRCHNM, while not being a snappy acronym, it a great example of the new face of public history. The scholars who lead the projects and collect the information invite collaboration and highlight achievements and opportunities to share history, not just their own. Presenting it online and for free allows educators at all levels to search the material and share among students or hobbyists or the unidentified. 

When we think about “net neutrality” or vocation and grade-driven budgeting for educational institutions and libraries, we should consider sites like these and the people behind them. Wealthy endowments can only go so far. Public history would be successful when it is a dialog all can attend to and participate in.

Feel free to share links to other archives or projects along these lines. That’s the point 😀


*Inclusiveness has been discussed recently as a term describing a benevolent invitation by those in power. It’s worth looking into.