“This video has been removed due to a complaint by ______________________.” Let’s face it; we’ve all been there. You’re searching for a movie, tv show or song and due to copyright laws and/or a zealous content producer, the link you click on is kaput. Of course, you can usually find that content online, but it comes with a price. In the world of historians there is a similar, less familiar barrier to certain content. Nonetheless, the implications of this barrier are arguably far greater. In short, much of the historical scholarship published online is not accessible unless one pays a subscription to a digital journal or can gain access through an institution of higher learning. In other words, there is a financial barrier to accessing the latest research and historiography that historians are discussing.
As Roy Rosenzweig explains in “Should Historical Scholarship be Free?” there is somewhat of a dilemma amongst academic and digital historians when confronting this issue. If “public support underwrites almost all historical scholarship” shouldn’t the public have free access to it? Some historians (but more often journals and databases) retort that providing free access to their scholarship will put historical associations and journals out of business. These are both legitimate concerns, but if the public does not have access to scholarly historical debates the loss is much greater than merely being frustrated that you can’t jam to that tune you’ve had stuck in your head. In a civic (and sometimes civil) society that depends on an informed electorate and the free exchange of ideas, there should not be a two-tiered system when it comes to access to historical arguments. As Rosenzweig points out, there are methods historians, librarians, and academic journals can adopt (such as author charges, delayed access, and partial access) to make content more readily available, while maintaining financial solvency.
There are other legal issues for historians in the digital age. For example, historians must navigate the complex copyright law codices when they post historical images, songs, motion picture clips or book excerpts online. Several characteristics of the Internet, such as its shear capacity, media flexibility, and widespread accessibility mean that digital historians have to be ever mindful of how they use and reproduce historical content. There is also the concern that posting one’s historical scholarship on the Internet leaves it susceptible to being plagiarized. Although not completely unfounded, this fear is somewhat overblown. The digital age has also given us tools to more easily spot plagiarized work. Ultimately, the Internet should be championed as a resource that allows easier dissemination of historical content and scholarship. Historians should not shy away from it, or think of it as the “Wild West” on the Web. At the same time, academic and public historians in the digital era should remain mindful of their legal obligations as opposed to assuming “fair use.” After all, we’re all aware of what happens when one assumes.
What do you think? How should historical scholarship be made more readily available on the Internet without shutting down the historical journals and societies that support it? Are the current digital copyright laws sufficient, or do they need revamping? Comments are welcome!