Copyright Blocking Digital History and the Response of Justified Civil Disobedience

cfm_fbWe start with a quote from the Victor Keegan article earlier this year in the Guardian:

“The issue of copyright is a global nightmare for anyone interested in digital preservation. The problems that Google has encountered in its – utterly praiseworthy – quest to digitise the world’s books are nothing compared to the problems of preserving documentary films where the multiple permissions needed for each one from commercial interests will, as Lawrence Lessig brilliantly describes in the New Republic, lead to a situation where ” the vast majority of documentary films from the 20th century will be forever buried in a lawyer’s thicket inaccessible (legally) because of a set of permissions built into these films at their creation”.

The Lessig article informs us:

” “As American University’s Center for Social Media concluded, “rights clearance costs are high, and have escalated dramatically in the last two decades,” and “limit the public’s access” to documentary film. The consequence of this ecology of creativity is that the vast majority of documentaries from the twentieth century cannot legally be restored or redistributed. They sit on film library shelves, many of them dissolving, since they were produced on nitrate-based film, and most of them forgotten, since no content company or anyone else can do anything with them.”

In my previous post on the recent move by libraries to offer digital copies of physical books still under copyright, I was really writing about a new form, in the view of many academics, of “justified civil disobedience”.

John Rawls, the political philosopher, defines justified civil disobedience:

““My thought is that in a reasonably just (though not perfectly just) democratic regime, civil disobedience, when it is justified, is normally to be understood as a political action which addresses the sense of justice of the majority in order to urge reconsideration of the measures protested and to warn that in the firm opinion of the dissenters the conditions of social cooperation are not being honored.”

The curators of our knowledge, culture, and history are slowly moving to a Rawlsian viewpoint on the issue of unnecessary and unjust copyright protections. Perhaps we need to digitize first and seek permissions later. If we the Supreme Court says we have an unencumbered right to bear arms, perhaps we can also carry a scanner.