Copyright and Historians

There are two chief ways in which digital historians must interact with copyright as a concept: when they are protecting their intellectual property and when they are trying not to infringe on others’ property. Due to personal experience I have elected to focus on the latter, though the former is nonetheless important.

Certain historians rarely have to worry about copyright. Depending on the collection they are working with and their policies it is possible that all of their resources, once properly cited, are free to use and no issues arise. Historians working further in the past tend to deal with these issues left often as music, literature, and other copyrighted materials have expired by the modern day and including them in their online articles, repositories, etc. poses no threat.

For historians who do deal regularly with copyright however, it can pose a significant threat to their work. While for smaller projects and articles even if copyright is accidentally infringed in may never come to light, larger projects that seek to incorporate a multitude of copyrighted materials are often dead in the water either because the materials they want are locked behind a pay wall and they do not have the funds to purchase the rights to those materials or corporations/organizations who own the copyrights are extremely strict about holding onto their properties. These problems are compounded by copyright law’s long lifespan, extending well after the original owner of the IP is dead and oftentimes being extended by the estate. 

Transitioning from collections to design, there are problems with copyright for digital historians in this realm as well. While search engines have provided excellent tools for avoiding copyright law altogether by narrowing searches to images and materials which are “Free to use, share or modify,” NARROW is the key word. The options dwindle as this option is employed as many who upload images or documents online do not bother to define the copyright status of the property, and even of those images available what the designer wants may not be available. The same goes for music – while there are options for license-free music, it is almost guaranteed to be inferior to licensed music and sounds corny or cheap when employed on a website. These pratfalls cannot be avoided without committing illegal acts or paying for materials however, and while it can be a pain for artists and photographers these laws are in place to protect their property and rightly so.

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