Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture makes the case that the expansion of copyright power in the last several decades is hindering creativity and scientific advances. Lessig argues that while copyright law began as an attempt to incentivize creativity by protecting creators’ rights to their work, “The law’s role is less and less to support creativity, and more and more to protect certain industries against competition” (19). I may not agree with everything that Lessig asserts, but I do agree that, with the lobbying power of the incredibly wealthy individuals and corporations that have the greatest stake in extensive copyright protections, the government’s interpretation of the purpose of copyright protections has shifted.
Lessig’s interest in how the internet has changed the burden of copyright law is particularly relevant to a course on digital history. As Lessig asserts, before the internet, “The technologies of publishing were expensive; that meant the vast majority of publishing was commercial… [Copyright law] was just one more expense of doing business. But with the birth of the Internet, this natural limit to the reach of the law has disappeared. The law controls not just the creativity of commercial creators but effectively that of anyone” (19). And Lessig does not believe that copyright law has productively adapted to this new reality.
For digital history, it means that although historians have the capability of creating interesting and innovative online presentations of scholarship using images, video, and sound, we are limited to what is outside the protections of copyright law, forcing most of the twentieth century out of bounds. I appreciate that creators deserve to exercise control over their hard work and that many creators’ livelihoods depend on these protections, but the status quo is harming the ability of historians to play a relevant role in an increasingly digital world. There must be ways to balance the needs of creators with the needs of historians, and shorter copyright duration (or at least not lengthening any further) strikes me as an obvious one. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that copyright duration will not be extended yet again and even less likely that it will be shortened. Lessig’s idea to make copyright something that requires opting in rather than opting out also seems unlikely to gain traction. For now, I will have to take selfish comfort in having research interests that don’t usually take me past the 1910s. It’s a shallow comfort, though, knowing the challenges ahead for future historians of the 20th and 21st centuries.