Readings: Copyright and Open Learning

This week’s readings and viewings brought into focus two polarities of our current age: increased copyright protection, on the one hand, and the increased open access facilitated by digital technology, on the other. These polarities are, of course, continuations on debates over intellectual property that have raged for centuries, but the advent of digital technology, with increased ease in copying, has brought these issues all the more to the fore.

These debates have strong ramifications for public history and history education in the digital age. History has always been about remixing–typically in a textual way. We remix pieces of text to tell stories and analyze the past. We use images both as primary sources and as ways to illustrate our points. But as we increasingly share not just our interpretations but our sources, and as we repackage those sources, we increasingly run up against copyright restrictions.

As the articles and viewings point out, copyright is a labyrinth; as this article notes, even for something as simple as “Happy Birthday.” Having worked on museum exhibitions and prepared other public materials in print and online, I find myself constantly afraid of unintentionally violating copyright. From what I can tell, I’m far from the only one. At the same time, too often museums are trying to assert copyright where it doesn’t exist.

One of the dangers of this culture of fear is that historians will be afraid to use certain materials, particularly from much of the 20th century. A tweet I saw last year even suggested that some who might otherwise study the 20th century would instead study the 19th. Concerns like those expressed in the Google Books case, in particular, means that much cultural production of the 20th century–including many books–will remain hard to find in a time where the costs and ability to make them available have greatly changed.

For history educators, copyright restrictions can be particularly frustrating, as exemplified by the Georgia State and UCLA cases. As someone who leans toward the open access side of things, I found the Georgia State case particularly disturbing. A university publisher, yes, needs to pay its bills–something presses are increasingly having difficulty doing. But the fact that Oxford University Press sued Georgia State over course readers–particularly those distributed only to classes–seems to me contrary to the mission of the press’s parent institution. As the commentators on Digital Campus pointed out, the paucity of words allowed under the court’s restrictive fair use guidelines (much more stringent than how the fair use doctrine is typically interpreted) would make professors not use many of these materials. The economic implications of the case for students already struggling to pay tuition is even worse.

As other commentators point out, as well, we live in an age where we can make educational materials all the more open–not just for students in our classes but to the world at large. We have the ability to deliver content in more portable, less expensive ways–to fulfill the missions of universities and public history institutions to disseminate knowledge. As previous weeks’ readings and viewings have made clear, the lecture-and-textbook method of teaching history is not the most effective anyway. If we were able to make more resources available to our students and to the public at large, the world would be all the richer for it.


Friday, June 21st, 2013 Copyright & Fair Use
5 Comments to Readings: Copyright and Open Learning
  1. Avatar of Kelly Schrum

    Interesting observation about history and remixing – the great scholarly mashup? You could argue that for other fields as well — scientists replicate experiments, making modifications large and small. As you note, though, copyright is a serious concern and fear of copyright violation, especially in the current moment, shapes our work, our teaching and learning.

  2. Kelly Schrum on June 22nd, 2013
  3. I think that what the Oxford University Press – Georgia State case really highlights well is the conflicting nature of a for profit institution doing work which is actually a public good. Perhaps for profit institutions should get out of the academic game altogether and we should instead create a public, non-profit alternative which does this work which we have recognized as a public good. Though perhaps the rise of for profit institutions shows how higher education is seen less and less as a public good and more and more as a commodity.

  4. lindsey on June 25th, 2013
  5. Avatar of nsleeter

    I see a lot of parallels between the discussion over MOOCs last week and the copyright disputes over course materials this week. As you note David, with digital materials now content is highly portable and less expensive than ever before. I think this directly threatens those technologies that deliver content in stale and unimaginative ways — for example, lectures and textbooks. Now that anyone can look up the facts that these forms convey, they become less valuable and it’s harder to charge a premium for them. Educators and publishers alike would do well to develop unique and imaginative content as well as find reasonable ways for universities and students to pay for products like digital course packets. Using lawsuits to try to get by on a pre-digital business model seems like an inevitably gloomy future.

  6. nsleeter on June 26th, 2013
  7. Avatar of Megan

    David – I know what you mean about the fear of violating copyright interfering with museum work. At one point I was asked to try and figure out if private, unpublished letters written in the 1810s might be subject to copyright (verdict: most likely public domain).

    Your final paragraph makes me wonder what our responsibilities are as scholars/historians/teachers. Should we be putting our own research out there in CC format? Is it too risky, as junior scholars, or is it making a statement? I don’t have any answers, it’s just a question inspired by your post.

  8. Megan on June 26th, 2013
  9. Avatar of Jordan

    The issue David brings up about copyright and the fear of getting sued is very much on the minds of archivists. There was an article a year or so ago that discussed the cost of an archives actually clearing copyright on an entire collection of correspondence. The university counsel basically said there’s not much point when the materials were not originally created to make profit. But that point is often lost when considering personal archives along with published materials.

  10. Jordan on June 26th, 2013

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