Copyright is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma to me – and yet I know I should try to understand it, because for any historian, access to sources – documents, pictures, other media generally – forms the basis of what we do.
I struggle constantly with the issue of copyright in my blog, since there is a question over any picture I pull from the web to put in a post. My personal compromise is to link the picture back to its original source on the web. That means – where I can – finding the library or art gallery it comes from, rather than just somebody else’s blog post. I’m not sure if this is an adequate safeguard, but since my blog only reaches a few hundred people, and makes no money, there’s probably no harm done. In a book, though, it’s not possible to salve a guilty conscience with a hyperlink.
Any author knows the nightmare of tracking down copyright owners to get their permission to publish images, or permission to use documents which are not in the public domain.
Many years ago, a friend of mine wrote a thesis on the history of a union. Both the friend and the union had better remain unnamed. He had the full cooperation of the union executive throughout his research – until shortly before he was due to submit his PhD, the executive of the union changed, and withdrew its permission. He spent a thoroughly miserable few months removing great chunks of quotations from his work. It was still a good thesis, but a shadow of its former self – as, indeed, was he for a while there.
The problem is worst with manuscripts, where copyright lasts forever. Now that digitization of printed sources has transformed so much research – Trove, I love you – libraries want to move on to digitize manuscript materials as well. There are already some wonderful digitized collections, often cooperative efforts such as the Darwin Correspondence Project and the Papers of Sir Joseph Banks, others more modest such as the University of Otago’s Samuel Marsden Online Archive. The Mitchell Library has just embarked on a project to digitize the Macarthur Papers.
But the basic issue of manuscript copyright is holding others back. Under current legislation, even old recipe books are copyright. FAIR (Freedom of Access to Information and Resources) has come up with a unique way to lobby for a change to copyright law. Next Friday, 31 July, is Copyright Day. Anyone concerned about copyright laws is encouraged to find a recipe, cook it, and post a photo of the dish and the manuscript recipe it is based on with the hashtag #cookingforcopyright on Twitter or on FaceBook here
Unfortunately most of my grandmother’s recipes are for cakes and puddings. This may be an unhealthy weekend coming up.