Online Musings of a Public Historian

Posts tagged ‘fair use’

The Legalities of Culturomics

In previous posts, we’ve discussed issues of fair use and taken a look at the Google Books corpus and the new trend in culturomic analysis. Now, let’s do a mash-up of the two as we examine the legality of the TIME Magazine Corpus of American English:

Entry Page for the TIME Magazine Corpus

Entry Page for the TIME Magazine Corpus

Working with Mark Davies, a corpus linguistics professor at Brigham Young University, TIME Magazine has put together its own text database through which users can:

…quickly and easily search more than 100 million words of text of American English from 1923 to the present, as found in TIME Magazine.  You can see how words, phrases and grammatical constructions and see how words have changed meaning over time.

Compared with the size and scope of the Google Books corpus project (5.2 million digitized books spanning a period of several hundred years), the 100 million words and eighty year timespan (1923-2006) featured in the TIME corpus appears positively miniscule.  This small scale is not necessarily a setback, however, particularly when it comes to matters of copyright and issues of fair use.

Part of the reason for the smaller scope of the TIME corpus, for example, is due to the fact that all of its featured data is culled from the TIME Magazine archives. As such, all of the data within the corpus is also owned by the entity maintaining it. This allows TIME to share such data without worry of violating copyright ownership, and to additionally provide users of the corpus the opportunity to read the highlighted text in its original context, offering access to full articles as they were initially published.

With ownership of all of its content, along with the resultant ability to offer further access to previous publications, the TIME corpus functions safely within the parameters of fair use. This is beneficial for corpus operators and potential users alike, allowing for the corpus to provide a meaningful research experience for all involved.

All’s Fair Use in Love and War

With all this talk of fair use and the intricacies of copyrighting in this week’s readings, I couldn’t help but think of the ongoing plagiarism scandal surrounding film star, Shia LaBeouf. To briefly recap: back in December, Mr. LaBeouf (of Transformers and Even Stevens fame, among other film and television projects) released a short film that was revealed to be largely lifted from a graphic novel authored by a guy named Daniel Clowes. In the months following, LaBeouf has issued a number of public statements apologizing for his various plagiarisms which in turn appear to plagiarize other public apologies.  This has all led to the most recent development in the saga, in which the actor has launched a performance art piece entitled #IAMSORRY involving him sitting silently in a room wearing a tuxedo and a paper bag featuring the words “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE” over his head (a look LaBeouf debuted last weekend at a Berlin film premiere).

Getty Images; taken from TIME Article “A Brief History of Shia LaBeouf Copying the Works of Others.”

Now, you’re probably asking “What does Shia LaBeouf copying a bunch of stuff and generally acting like kind of a crazypants have to do with digital history and fair use?” The answer: quite a bit, actually. Although we as historians may not be plagiarizing wholesale from anyone else’s works, nor exhibiting such erratic behavior after doing so, we can still use the LaBeouf scandal to our advantage in better understanding what does and does not constitute “fair use” in the online world.

Defined by Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel Cohen in “Owning the Past?” as the practice of  “limited borrowing from the work of others [that is] acceptable when that borrowing produces something new and useful,” fair use is regarded by authors Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi as a “tool of creative freedom.” In their book, Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright, Aufderheide and Jaszi argue that the practice of fair use serves as a shield of sorts, defending the creative process from the clutches of power-hungry copyright holders seeking to become “chiefs of private fiefdoms of culture, and private censors of future culture.” While this description appears a tad extreme, and clearly does not speak to the aims of all copyright holders – several of whom simply seek to protect the rights to what is intellectually theirs – Aufderheide and Jaszi make a good point in characterizing fair use as an important tool in the creative process. 

So was Shia LaBeouf simply practicing his right to fair use in this string of copyright scandal? If you’re going by Rosenzweig and Cohen’s 4 Factors of Fair Use, then probably not.  Looking at all of LaBeouf’s plagiarism snafus, he collectively violates each of these four factors in one form or another.

Of course, not all cases are as high-profile as the LaBeouf scandal, and some areas are significantly grayer than others.  At what point does exercising a right to fair use turn into wholesale breach of copyright? For that matter, to what extent does a copyright protect certain materials? As indicated by Rosenzweig and Cohen, the intricacies of copyright law are constantly changing over time.  Can a conclusive decision ever be reached? What would this set boundary look like and how would it be enforced?

More importantly, will Shia LaBeouf ever take that bag off his head?

Archiving the Web: A Question of Content

From my understanding of Abbie Grotke’s “Web Archiving at the Library of Congress,” the main idea behind archiving online content is “to reflect the true evolution of society, government, and culture online…[in order to] ensure that a representative sample of the web is preserved.”  While this seems a simple enough notion, the actual implementation of this preservation process carries with it a number of challenges and questions along the way.

The largest of these challenges is the question of what exactly should be preserved in order to fully realize the goal of presenting the changing ideas, values, and beliefs of contemporary society for future study. In some cases, such as Roy Rosenzweig’s case study of the online collection effort following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the answer is obvious.  Events carrying such heavy global, national, and historic significance clearly require documentation, as do any digital content associated with them.  The question of what sort of content is worthy of preservation is where the proverbial waters tend to get murky.  Functioning as a simultaneously public and personal space, the web serves as a platform for not only “official” responses to such high-profile events (in the form of online newspapers, web pages for government organizations, and the like), but also the reactions of everyday individuals through social media networks, interpersonal messages, and online journals and blogs.

This combination of professional and recreational content offers historians a vast array of material through which can be gathered a well-rounded snapshot of the core ideals, beliefs, and values of contemporary society. As pointed out by Jinfang Niu in “An Overview of Web Archiving,” this snapshot is not limited to what can be considered the “better” aspects of society (“literature, scientific publishing”), but also representative of some of the “worst” (“advertising, pornography”).  Such an array of material ranging from the ephemeral to the long-lasting, from the enlightening to the unsavory form the basis for the challenge of deciding which content to preserve within the digital archiving system.  This initial question spawns further issues, such as those of copyright, ownership, and fair use.

How far should an institution go when it comes to archiving online material? Should a certain type of content take priority for preservation over others (scholarly vs. personal, for example)? If so, does this skew the “well-rounded” snapshot of society that historians are striving to preserve?

Check out some video interviews for Association of Research Libraries’ Code of Practices in Fair Use here. Does this Code of Practices ease some of the challenges faced in web archiving?