Historians deal with copyright frequently. Sources are often old, and it’s hard to find out who a particular photograph or recording belongs to. But it is important to give credit where it is due because as Wikipedia puts it, “food and housing cost money; so authors, directors, painters, photographers, poets and other creators must find other jobs to support themselves if they can’t get compensated for their creative work.” But surely that doesn’t mean you.
Cracked.com explains in less than eloquent terms why taking something and slapping it on your blog is at best, terrible, but also, sorta illegal. Doctrow feels that “there’s nothing moral about paying a composer tuppence for the piano-roll rights, there’s nothing immoral about not paying Hollywood for the right to videotape a movie off your TV,” but Mark Helprin points out that ” in Jefferson’s era 95 percent of the population drew its living from the land. Writers and inventors were largely those who obtained their sustenance from their patrimony or their mills; their writings or improvements to craft were secondary. No one except perhaps Hamilton or Franklin might have imagined that services and intellectual property would become primary fields of endeavor and the chief engines of the economy. Now they are, and it is no more rational to deny them equal status than it would have been to confiscate farms, ropewalks and other forms of property in the 18th century.”
So we get that it’s wrong. We understand that people’s livelihoods depend on the public paying for their intellectual property… But we also really want to use their stuff for free. I think educators are incredibly guilty of this. It’s so easy to open up YouTube and search for documentaries on any given subject. You don’t have to order them, pay for them, or walk all the way to the library for them. But the people who worked on those documentaries will never know that you watched it, nor will they receive a cent for you and the classroom of 50 who watch your documentary on Pompeii. I have struggled with this issue all throughout my schooling, because I feel very strongly that credit should be given to the creators of works you appreciate, and educators seem to love YouTube. I fully understand a short clip to make a point, but a full-length documentary should never be shown. Besides breaking the law, you run into quality issues and ads. I recently had to watch a documentary in a class about the Industrial Revolution that the instructor could apparently only find in pieces, and so we watched it in 15 minute increments, complete with ads before some sections. Just drop the $20 on the documentary, already! The same instructor showed a documentary on Alexander the Great where the quality was so awful, the narrator was simply a flesh-colored block in a blocky red sweater. If you’re relying on these creators to make up 3-4 hours of your lecture time each week, you should feel obliged to pay them for their part in advancing your career.
The other issue that interests me, similar to Creative Commons laws, are artists who willingly give their art up, and where that falls legally. The TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 used to encourage fans to “Keep Circulating Those Tapes!” Now, while they’ve more recently explained what specifically they meant by that, and that making copies is still illegal, there was a time when this was more encouraged.
As law struggles to keep up with newer and better technology that makes copying and sharing easier, how will artists protect their works, and how will historians continue to write about history without breaking the law? More importantly, how will historians teach about history without breaking the law?