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The Messy State of Copyright

February 18, 2013

In continuing with the theme of the implications of the digital age on the historical profession, it is worth looking further at Cohen and Rosenzweig’s text, specifically their article entitled, “Owning the Past?”

Essentially, the authors claim that copyright is a commonly held “shared storehouse” of human creation, rather than the world envisioned by Rousseau or Hobbes, where the most powerful have the most leverage over property and ideas. That said, their neutral position goes back and forth between the use of caution against those that would aggressively assert their rights (and have the power to do so) and keeping an open mind toward sharing commonly held intellectual property.

As I’ve noted earlier this fall here on this blog, being an academic and sharing your knowledge online has not been fully accepted by all, nor is there a decided on means to maximize engagement while sustaining a profitable model. Even in their lengthy discussion in the above article on protecting your intellectual property, there is no discussion on what actually happens to an academic like myself who tries to publish when they’ve shared some of their material online.

To that end, I’ve sadly joined the older guard in not sharing my most recent findings. I do not want to get rejected by an academic press during a vulnerable part of my career simply because I was naive enough to fully buy the idea of the “digital commons.” Cohen and Rosenzweig cover their own backsides by providing a word of caution about sharing any intellectual property online, but they note that protections are still in flux.

It would seem that rather than caveat emptor, perhaps the phrase should be “sharer beware.”

  1. The instinct within academe to report something new, to make a contribution to the field that is unique and advances scholarship, is not in my view a function of corporate greed, but of professional standards. And, as your blog attests, the instinct of the online community is to go publicly immediately, sharing every morsel discovered at an archive or unearthed at a library. I suppose you are experiencing the dissonance between the two. Maybe the academe will evolve into the digital commons that Cohen & Rosenzweig envision, but for now I think you are wise to stay within bounds.

  2. Jason, While I think the conservative approach you are taking is the prudent one here, there may in fact be a reasonable middle ground. Book publishers frequently advise against publishing too many articles in refereed journals. Nonetheless, those articles are essential to get your foot in the door for teaching positions. Furthermore, they generate interest in your work and likely promote your eventual book. It’s a delicate balance there. Likewise, the same can be said with work presented on the web. You certainly could share a taste of your work and research in a manner that would actually be helpful to the advancement of your career.

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