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Copyright and Digital Storytelling

According to the documentation we read for this week, the legal constraints of copyright are fairly clear for our digital stories. Unless a digital story is entirely original in terms of audio and visual content, it will run up against copyright issues, and only then if the video is out of earshot of any copyrighted audio content or corporate logos: blank background, neutral clothing for all subjects, white noise audio background preferred. On the other hand, if the work is only going to be used in the classroom, a teacher seems to be pretty secure within Fair Use requirements. As soon as the work is considered for public dissemination, the long and potentially expensive process of securing permissions for every image will be operative. Historical material remote enough to be in the public domain would make a decent story doable. As the point person for getting permissions for the Children and Youth in History project at CHNM, I have been very fortunate in getting many organizations to give us permission with a simple form letter that butters them up. Without the cache of GMU, U of Mo and CHNM, and the grant-making organizations that fund the project, it would probably not have been as easy. In addition, there is a budget for permissions. Individuals would not fare so well within that system, or would have to curtail the content they use. On the other other hand, the web-based projects I have worked on have never been challenged as long as thumbnails of artworks (the main material I use) are put on the site, the original link is provided, and the museum or other org is credited next to the image or in a credits list. There, too, I have been fortunate. I will admit to not being terribly stringent, and daring organizations to challenge educational uses on the web. So far so good.
Where the real problems that the filmmakers and copyright rebels are pushing against is the stifling of commentary on contemporary life and art that corporate interests have won for themselves through copyright law. If I worked in that area, I would be frustrated to no end. Use of music is also a big issue that I have seldom run up against, but I can see it being a real wet blanket on creativity. The mention of “Happy Birthday” being copyrighted is truly shocking in the example of the Hoop Dreams film. Anything 3-year-olds sing has to be in the public domain, I would think, suggesting a new legal criterion for that.
My own digital story contains a whole array of images that could be under copyright. I am such a fledgling moviemaker, however, that I can’t imagine posting it anywhere, and besides, I would only use it in educational settings. The images, furthermore, are quite trivial. Is Osama bin Laden’s fuzzy video in the public domain? Is a photo of a TV playing the video under copyright? It seems unlikely that he would press me for copyright on his image…he has other things to worry about.

Where does it all end?

I’m not sure if my allergies or reading about copyrights has given me a migraine this morning. Copyrights, based on the charts posted for this week (and others explored in Clio 1), are in some ways pretty straightforward. Then a comic book arrived to clarify things, and I think wound up muddying the view. Page 30 of the comic book, particularly Munch’s Scream, pretty much summed up my feelings reading it. Now mind you, I grew up on comic books, so I appreciated the forum. But the authors presented the pros and cons of copyright in a manner that left me with more questions, and not less. At one point I felt fine about using a 30 second clip in the DST assignment, the next minute I’m worried that some French TV company will want to sue me for 4 1/2 seconds of their footage, and on a graduate salary I can’t face a $10,000 litigation cost and pray I get a judge who will make the French pay the court costs.

The problem, it seems, is that copyright laws are in constant flux. And there’s a good chance that 10 or 15 years from now, what holds true today will not look very similar. But, at the cost of sounding like some pessimist, I do believe that creators should be protected and allowed to produce ground-breaking work and copyright laws protect them. Even if the cost of such freedom is an evil Bart Simpson, Mickey Mouse, or Big Bird ready to pounce on it. I am reminded of such freedoms in our modern political discourse. Yes, I can hardly stomach some of the vitriol that you see at tea party rallies, talk radio, and on either side of the political spectrum. But, the protection of free speech is worth it.

In the end, Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig really put forth some practical reminders and a sage advice:

“…copyright law, like history, is subject to conflicting interpretations as well as sharp contention between advocates of the rights of the owners of intellectual property and those seeking to enlarge the public domain…In large and small ways, the web has reconfigured the legal landscape for historians.”

So what should I do? Here is their advice:

“We believe that a more aggressive assertion of the rights and claims of that commons, when followed sensibly, does not entail excessive risk…Even if the rights holder later shows up, most reasonable people won’t sue you if you offer at that point to remove the material or pay them a fee.”

So, it may just best be served to be aware of copyright laws, use discretion, and be willing to remove material on the off-chance some French TV company comes knocking on your door.

Interesting Software

Here is a link to some software, called Stories Matter, that Concordia University developed for oral history indexing.

This article, about the reasons and processes behind the software, also addresses some of the challenges within oral history and digital storytelling.

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Story of Bottled Water

Check out this story from Annie Leonard, who also did The Story of Stuff/

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Storyboarding wipe-out

Like a kid on a snowboard for the first time, I launched into storyboarding my carefully crafted script. What a surprise to find out how complex it is to break it up into parts with visuals and audio. Amazing how bloated the text was!! How to do the transitions!? How long to put things up? How much to put up? Where to insert a little pause or silence? Stay tuned…this can only get better.
See you tomorrow in the lab.

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I’ve been thinking about the term “storytelling” and wondering if it is really the best term for the interactive potential of the digital “Web 2.0” environment. Implied in storyTELLING is a focus of the “teller” of the story and not the interaction with and participation in the story. The author is the active party (i.e. the teller) and the audience is the passive party (i.e. the story tellee). An audience may not even be necessary for storyTELLING at all. Although it reminds me of the old riddle “if a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it make a sound?,” storyTELLING implies that communication is not required for a story to be told. In other words, the term implies that if a story is told and no one hears, storyTELLING still took place. Might “interactive storyMAKING” better embrace the communal nature of web 2.0?

Simple, interactive stories have been around for a while. I recall enjoying “choose your own ending” books and “Encyclopedia Brown” mysteries which invite the reader to parse a story for clues and figure how the bad guy (usually a kid named Bugs Meanie) got caught. But in these instances, the narrative is still tightly controlled and a clear, delineated relationship between the author and the reader exists. Yes, this environment is interactive, but this is still storyTELLING in the sense that the author has created something for the reader. Video games like Myst that were mentioned in the readings are “high-tech” versions of the same paradigm.

A more interactive, open-ended model involves abandoning the notion of authorship altogether. At the risk of exposing my inner geek, my most powerful experience with truly interactive storytelling involves Dungeons and Dragons. I used to get together with a group of seven guys approximately one evening a month for about 5 hours to play. Over the course of 6 years, we developed a story arc to which everyone contributed. No single person could be considered the “author” or storyTELLER, yet there was most certainly an interactive compelling narrative which engaged all participants. Although I don’t have any personal experience with “The Sims” or “Second Life,” my understanding is that these games use technology to create a virtual environment to build the same kind of dynamic, interactive, communal storylines.

The digital environment has the potential to change some aspects of academic writing, but to the extent that academia rewards authorship as “contributions to the field,” I don’t see the paradigm of storyTELLING changing. Academics receive social, professional, and financial rewards for writing/creating in their own name (and the name of the institutions they represent), not engaging in anonymous communal experiences or repositories of information like Wikipedia. Our social structure is so intimately tied to notions of authorship, ownership, and property that the role of the storyTELLER (and the product he/she creates) is buttressed in innumerable ways.


Digital storytelling works in an interactive environment by giving the user agency, rather than the medium acting upon the user solely. In TimeSpace: Inauguration, we saw the Inauguration from different vantage points–it gave us a sense of story across space. The user can see the big picture, and as we lose identity as a society, maybe we lose our social context.

I thought the 9/11 archive was very appropriate for digital storytelling because so many people alive today lived through it. Hence there would be a desire to interact with the material, rather than take it in more passively if it were a subject that many didn’t know about and would be far more likely to relate to in a detached way. And you see it on the site: people uploading their own pictures and telling their own stories.

In Evan’s thesis project interview video, he suggests that game and narrative are different things, but maybe the game derives from the same source.

The section on ARGS were interesting, the issue there is whether one loses touch with their personality, and therefore, learning (among other things). This would be my greatest fear in developing an ARG.

Will ARGs be the way of the history future, I don’t know. One of the issues is to assess whether people lose touch with reality and the uncertainties of life. I don’t agree with McGonagle that games necessarily make people better.

The digital environment changes academic writing and argument by their own story structure (AGRs). It changes the argument by calling into question whether one needs an argument. Still, the web is here to stay. Web 2.0 storytelling said it best: “stories now are open-ended, branching, hyperlinked, cross-media, participatory, exploratory, and unpredictable.”

Interactive Storytelling

Storytelling in an interactive environment can be as simple as making a relatively closed narrative available for reuse, like embedding a video on a social networking site, or more open to critique, for example, commenting on a blog. It can also be more complex, allowing for multiple authors, collaborating without the limits of time and space or as part of a puzzle or game space. A story can unfold through user choices in multiple environments.

In Alternate Reality Gaming, a story can exist over a number of websites as well as in the ‘real’ world of physical spaces, museums, phone booths, billboards. As Evan’s Thesis points out, game spaces do not often hold the same storytelling power as say, films, which depend heavily on voyeurism, identification with certain characters, narrative closure, and a host of other techniques in which the viewer becomes immersed as a spectator.

Not all storytelling in an interactive environment challenges the traditional role of reader or spectator. Breaking Ulysses into micro-chunks on twitter only effects the transmission of the story, challenging narrative coherence. Some storytelling might hold up better to fragmentation before becoming incoherent than James Joyce. Academic work might even benefit from increased fragmentation.

The Stolen Time Archive, in Vector’s Journal, is a good example of how academic writing can change in a digital environment. The emphasis in this project is on argumentation as part of a process of analysis and conjecture, rather than as a tool in service of a conclusion. Like much current digital scholarship, or historical scholarship, generally, Alice Gambrell’s work is based on an archive of materials, which can accessed through a list or a collage. All of the items have at least two rather disparate interpretations that reflect strands of current scholarship and develop sophisticated and coherent arguments. In contrast to text scholarship, the interpretation of primary source material appears more open and contingent. The reader may look at the archival material directly, before experiencing the context of the academic arguments. Digital presentation allows the creator to present competing interpretations without ultimately concluding that one is more ‘correct’ for the primary source.

Five Card Nancy…

The picture-sorting exercise we did in class reminded me of a game created by the cartoonist Scott McCloud, best known for his book Understanding Comics.

The game is called Five Card Nancy. It’s a cooperative storytelling game similar to what we were doing in class today with the five photo assignments, but in a more game-y and less classroom-y way, and using panels from Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy.

(I’ve personally found that panels from Archie comics work well too.)

To give you some idea, Dave White at 741.5 Comics has put together a little PERL script to create a solitaire version. Takes away some of the fun of vetoing other player’s narrative moves, but it’s still pretty neat.

…Just something I thought y’all might have fun playing with.

Enjoy a different kind of story

The art of William Kentridge . Some of the stories are still, some are moving. I would like to see more of his work. Torn paper horse…hmm…hmm

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