The Call to the Creative Commoner: The Digital Humanities and Flexible Copyright

By | 1 August 2010

The digital is the realm of the open source, open resources. Anything that attempts to close this space should be recognized for what it is: the enemy.
~Digital Humanities Manifesto v2.0, Point 12

This passage within the manifesto for the Digital Humanities falls under the category of fightin’ words: it is clear that nothing should be allowed to come between the student of the Humanities in their quest to utilise the abundance of new digital media now at our collective fingertips. Like other manifestos from the past, there is a certain implication that nothing must stand in the way of the revolution. If you try and stand in the way of the open source movement, then you are a counter-revolutionary. You may find yourself blindfolded and up against a crumbling wall, waiting for the collective report that will remove you from the picture and allow the future utopia of free knowledge to inch that little bit closer to reality. Like the hard-liners of the FOSS (Free Open Source Software) movement, the Digital Humanities army marches proudly forward waving its banners and imagining a bright, free future for the Humanities.

Those who have heard the story or Robin Hood will know that the royal reservation of certain tracts of the English countryside – dating from the days following the Norman conquest – has been translated through popular culture into a classic topos of ‘the man keeping you down’. The transgressions of those scholars hoping to utilise the resources of this verdant forest are met with harsh penalties from our digital sheriffs. Only the king may hunt the king’s deer, the peasantry are strictly forbidden from gathering wood or grazing their livestock. Trespassers will be caught and punished.

The landscape of digital data awaits exploitation, and yet the sheriff and his men reserve this right for their feudal masters. By the same token, the proponent of copyright is branded the man, a faceless avatar of the disparagingly named ‘knowledge industry’ trying to keep you down, and to stifle one’s ability to create free, collaborative and creative work. The restrictive predilections of our ‘culture of permission’ has the potential to stifle or kill the nascent digital humanities. The dreaded term ‘all rights reserved’ is cast in the role of a draconian forest law enforced by the zealous copyright sheriffs of the academy and its associates, enacting gruesome punishments for those who dare to transgress the edict from on high. The ‘King’s land’ of Humanities data owned directly by our tertiary institutional magnates is not open to the Creative Commoner, and thus the property of these intellectual elite – the universities, the governments, the museums – is safe.

Is this depiction an accurate one? It is perhaps more likely that life within this new collaborative research space is a little complex than it first appears. Universities must after all protect the integrity of their research, holding onto the original productions of their researchers and shielding them from gratuitous exploitation by others. The monarch of the realm must protect their lands from exploitation by unauthorised powers, and as a result protect its inhabitant from a rampaging war-band of potential plagiarists. They have a duty to uphold as the traditional custodians of the knowledge that they generate, and they have a responsibility to protect their precious source materials so that they may be fruitfully employed by future generations of academics. They are castellans of academic knowledge, and take this duty very seriously.

As researchers in the humanities, we are faced with a conundrum. We wish our work to be protected by the mighty aegis of institutional copyrights, and yet we want the freedom to create the free and open resources imagined within the Digital Humanities manifesto. To my mind, this is a worthy dream, and yet one must protect one’s treasure in a world filled with thieves. We want flexibility of use, but in turn we do not wish for our work to be abused unscrupulously by others. We may wish to be generous in our donations of free and open research as a legacy to our peers, and yet we have interests of our own that must be protected if we are to have productive and fruitful careers in the Humanities.

The stakes are high in the copyright game now being played within our institutions of knowledge. Who has the fishing rights in this vast ocean of new digital content? The new frontier of humanities data, like any emerging body of source material, has defied efforts to reconcile itself with the time honoured traditions of copyright and intellectual property law. The old system still holds power within the academic world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of copyright and intellectual property, in which the old edict that material shall held by its creator with ‘all rights reserved’. Enter Creative Commons the twenty-first century equivalent to its historical companion, the right of common land, and the legal entitlements of the commons. Although owned by its creators, the abundant resources of the digital demesne is given to those who would utilise it under certain conditions.

The would-be creative commoner, under the mandate of ‘some rights reserved’, may take cuttings from the trees of data, fish in the rivers and lakes of enquiry, and graze the swine of their methodology upon the rich ground of the online pasture. The possibility of ‘some rights reserved’ allows for a more flexible distribution of data within a world of increasingly abundant material. It allows a compromise between the harsh and unremitting force of a full copyright, and yet retains the right to ownership over a body of information, regardless of how freely it is utilised. Credit may be given where it is deserved, debts indicated where they exist, and yet it is possible to take wood from the trees of knowledge without arbitrary and punitive retaliation. Rather than the oppression of Copyright, the Creative Commoner embraces Copyleft, a protection of intellectual property for the socialists of the knowledge world.

Flexibility of use will become increasingly essential as the praxis of Humanities researchers changes with time, shifting and emerging as a system of thought with computerised communication at its heart. The digital humanities manifesto describes itself as a genre of M’s: mix, match, mash and manifest. This principle can be extended into a new realm of academic practices, in which the new arises from a freely taken and liberally combined concoction of ideas. Consequently, the new digital humanities researcher must have the freedom to mix and match and to mash up the abundant work of their predecessors before a new manifestation of scholarship and knowledge becomes available to the hungry masses. A new wave of educational and research practises such as Edupunk and the runaway success of Wikipedia and Web 2.0 has created a generation of creators rather than the consumers of previous online content. DIY education has become a dream given form through the Open University, Podcasts, Blogs, Wikis, iTunesU and many other marvels of the new digital age. It is now the moral duty of the elites of knowledge to share their spoils, and to make education a right rather than a privilege. The museums and libraries have responded in fine fashion, and many universities have obliged generously. Nevertheless, they dole out their treasures like alms to the poor, rather than giving them the resources to grow their own intellectual nourishment.

Furthermore, the flexibility of the Creative Commons license is the conduit through which greater freedom of information (one persistent fantasy of the liberal democrat) may lead to a democratisation of scholarly research (another compelling dream). In the manifesto, it is proclaimed that “The Digital Humanities seeks to play an inaugural role with respect to a world in which, no longer the sole producers, stewards, and disseminators of knowledge or culture, universities are called upon to shape natively digital models of scholarly discourse for the newly emergent public spheres of the present era (the www, the blogosphere, digital libraries), to model excellence and innovation in these domains, and to facilitate the formation of networks of knowledge production, exchange, and dissemination that are, at once, global and local.” For this brave new world to be possible, the universities must learn to loosen their vice-like grip on knowledge. They must cease to be the sheriff and become the facilitators and architects of a new age in which their role will be drastically altered.

And what treasures await the Digital Humanities in this future! Never before has such a vast body of new information been made available for the use of students within the Humanities. At the turn of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Benedictine historian Guibert of Nogent compared scholars in search of knowledge to fish exploring a great ocean. Likewise, Isaac Newton famously, or reportedly, claimed that “to myself, I am only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me”. There is an enormous bulk of potential knowledge waiting for us to use, and yet much of it is locked away under prohibitive copyrights. Many institutions have been very generous with their contributions to the ocean of digital knowledge, and yet their reaction in incommensurate with the pressures of change.

Within the deeps of this great ocean, the human mind may wander and search, drawing new and original draughts of erudition from a vast reservoir of potential ideas, in order to create (excuse the pun) ‘drafts’ for their research. The analogy of the ocean still holds currency today for students of the humanities. The name given to the vast hidden bulk of the internet not accessible to our everyday search engines is telling: the Deep Web. To my mind, this title evokes a vast and shadowed abyss of data, a digital deep in which the light of human scrutiny scarcely penetrates. Who know what horrors and wonders we may find in the blackness of this entity generated by our insatiable generation of data? Filled by the vast bulk of quantitative data generated by an increasingly efficient new class of digitally enabled intellectuals, this unknown ocean presents an unprecedented opportunity for the schools of humanities scholars playing in its nutritive waters.

What then, are we to do? The manifesto of the Digital Humanities has issued a challenge to create “an array of convergent practices that explore a universe in which: a) print is no longer the exclusive or the normative medium in which knowledge is produced and/or disseminated; instead, print finds itself absorbed into new, multimedia configurations; and b) digital tools, techniques, and media have altered the production and dissemination of knowledge in the arts, human and social sciences.” A grand dream, to be sure, and yet a new and generous copyright regime is required before this dream may come to pass. Enter the Creative Commons; a balance between protection of intellectual property and assurance of credit where it it due, and the flexibility and collaborative potential of collective creativity and curiosity. For my part, I believe that students of the Humanities have a duty to fulfil: we must be generous with our ideas and enthusiastic about those of others, and yet mindful that all ideas and material are used respectfully and with the approval of their creators. If the Utopianism of the manifesto is to become a conceivable reality, we must create a system of Copyright that makes it easy to collaborate, free to use what we need and supportive of all who wish to contribute, regardless of their origin. The marriage of Creative Commons and the Digital Humanities will produce wondrous and varied offspring, and I hope to be there when they take their first steps.

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