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.

Reviewing the Sound of Diaspora

Musical Passage - A Voyage to 1688 Jamaica

I have been fascinated by ethnomusicology since I was first introduced to the word and able to pronounce it. This study of cultures through this music and vice versa allows you to make connections and follow conclusions that shrink the world while exposing the enormously complex layers of deceptively simple sound expressions. It is also a way to illustrate and understand migration patterns, symbolic interaction, and facets of culture that might have been obscured through time.

This week my assignment for digital history class was to analyze and review the Musical Passage project, and I was thrilled. Created by Laurent Dubois , David K Garner , and Mary Caton Lingold , here is a digital fusion of history, music, and digital application to inform and unwrap the complexity of a musical piece composed to transcribe a piece of African music in the Carribean. A collaboration of scholars presents an interactive story of Hans Sloane’s Voyage to the Islands of Maera, Barbados, Neives and S. Christophers and Jamaica” from 1707. From a contemporary view, there was an English intellectual who traveled to Jamaica during an active era of slave trading from Africa to the region, held slaves and a plantation, and in effect mined the culture and talents of these forces, transplanted people to study their music through his lens.  But, this is African music, acknowledging ethnic diversity there, brought to those in a tragic diaspora, keeping a respect to the meaning and delivery of the music: the melody and instrumentation remaining as authentic as possible given the setting.

This site posts the image of these 2 musical pages of text and offers hypertext to hear the passages or learn about the instruments and language within the piece. The clicks remain on the page in a popup to provide information such as a short biography on Sloane, elaborated definitions of some terms what illustrate life in Jamaica at the time, speculation on who his assistant “Mr. Baptiste” really was. On the music printed, the creators offered the historical background of each movement as it related to the 3 ethnicities represented: Angola, Popo, and Koromanti. They gave the location, some distinctive description of each and what kind of instruments would have come from the region. Along with this pop-out is a sample of the music performed as written.

The site has 3 main sections: Explore, Read, and About. Explore is the aforementioned page with the text and transcription from which one can listen or read more information on the piece. In the “Read” section, the authors provide a detailed history on Sloane and Jamaica at the time, the process of writing this book and Sloane’s efforts with Mr. Baptist in achieving some authenticity. They do this respecting the integrity of the music above all else. The final section discusses the collaboration of scholars, the digital architecture behind the project and platforms, and an extended bibliography. The grace and ease of transition in the site from HTML5 and Fullpage.Js among other newer software for web presentation.


The creators of Musical Passage clearly state that the audience for Sloane’s book was for his peers: the white, wealthy land-owning, slave-holding class in Jamaica at the time and not for the people who could relate to the material and join the conversation. Those they treated as sub-human were also those who were peculiar, and they held a detached intellectual interest in these rich cultures much as they would a seashell or a chair.

The audience for the website, however, is the public at large and this user-friendly site has the appeal of offering great detail in somewhat common language that can be understood by middle school children interested in the origins of the guitar or banjo or a citizen wanting to find a transcription of music hailing (inspired) from their ancestral land pre-diaspora. It would be useful as a classroom assignment to launch a multi-disciplinary study into Jamaica at the time as a case study in slavery and the Americas. Or, for someone like myself, who loves music and exploring its many manifestations as expressive cultural artifacts.

Musical Passage is both a digital archive and an exhibit. It digitized a rare and important work, perhaps the first transcription of African music into the Americas and annotated it so that we can listen and understand it in the context beyond its initial appeal.  It may inspire others to develop interactive digital sites and exhibits for other pieces, both historical and current which invite the discussion of art and meaning and the things that unite us all or expose stratification.