Copyright – History Revisited

This is long, and probably very boring, so if you want to skip to the good stuff just read these three pieces:



Our copyright laws are derived, albeit at a distance, from the prohibitive censorship of the British Stationer’s Office in the sixteenth century. The Stationer’s office censored, prohibited, and by virtue of the Star Chamber court, impounded, burned and branded offending presses, books, and printers. Milton, in 1644, having suffered though the Stationer’s restrictions during the English Civil War, passionately argued against a resurgence of censorship via the 1643 Licensing Act which proclaimed “That no Book, pamphlet, or paper shall be henceforth Printed, unless the same be first approv’d and licenc’t” in his Aeropagitica. Though Milton was a staunch supporter of the current puritanical state, he was also a staunch advocate for freedom of the press, and freedom of information, and he argues that information must be made easily available in order for rational people to be able to make good decisions. His arguments would apply equally well in our current mercenary licensing environment.

From the beginning, copyright law was meant to be a way of controlling information via publishing. Gradually control was moved from the government to the creator. Current copyright laws have changed so much in the last fifteen years that we’ve partially moved back to the restrictive atmosphere Milton wrote about—though for commercial reasons, rather than political ones.

Unlike the 1643 Act however, current copyright places control in the hands of a few large publishers, those who can, like Disney, successfully lobby Congress, as happened with the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998, which extended existing and future term limits on copyrighted works for an additional 20 years, for a total of seventy years after the death of the author. Keep in mind, please, that there’s a separate rule for a “corporate” author, that is, a work created “for hire” when the rights owner, the “author” if you will, is a corporatation—like, say, Disney. “Works for hire” were already protected for 75 years. Keep in mind too, that this law, like most of the previous changes, is retroactive. So works published in the 1920s that would have been available, aren’t going to be.

Right now Sonny Bono 1998 act is being contested, in the Eldred vs. Ashcroft case. Michael Dalton, in his piece for Monday, February 25, 2002 on “Mickey Mouse legislation” points to an interesting Salon interview of Eldred and Bjorklund, who both want to republish books whose copyright would have expired, had the law not been changed. In an age where information, data, is even more important, and can be distributed more efficiently than ever before, a few very wealthy and influential corporations are deliberately trying to stifle the spread of information, and the rights of creators, by lobbying Congress to enact increasingly restrictive copy right laws.

Lawrence Lessig, an intellectual property attorney, a faculty member at Stanford, and the lead attorney in the Eldred vs. Ashcroft Bono challenge, has a fascinating article in American Spectatorabout the changes in copyright law, and the future of the net.

The change has been gradual—Lessing offers a short history of the evolution of copyright law—but essentially copyright now means the life of the author plus seventy years, thanks to Sonny Bono. That means a publisher—or these days, a publishing conglomerate—essentially controls access and distribution of the content for that time. It doesn’t matter if the work is out of print, it’s still covered by copyright.

The Bono act has severely limited Brewster Kahle’s plans for a digital library, an Internet Library to rival the fabled (albeit historic) library of Alexadria. Kahle and his group have already created the Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine. Now he wants to create a library as big as the world. Kahle was the inventer of WAIS. This is someone who actually makes data available in useful ways. He’d like to do a lot more–if he could get rights to share the data. You can read his amici curiae in which he points out:

This library will expand our understanding of “public access.” It will make information accessible in formats that uniquely support and promote creativity in the arts and sciences – allowing individuals to clip and sample millions of words, films, and music recordings with ease. At the same time digitization will greatly reduce the cost of preserving our cultural history and eliminate deterioration caused regularly through the physical handling of cultural artifacts. Through digitization, we can inexpensively open the full contents of this new library to the public, especially to those for whom access has been a half-kept promise—the distant, the deaf, and the blind. A universally accessible archive of print, audio, and visual materials is within our grasp.

I’m very much in favor of artists retaining their creative control, and being recompensed for the sweat of their brow, but not into perpetuity. Never mind Mickey Mouse and fiction, think about the way copyright effectively prevents poor nations from access to current technology data. I’m not in favor of giant publishing conglomerates making money in perpetuity.

Blogs, Definitions and Commonplace Books

Even Time magazine has realized that there’s something about blogs. People keep comparing them to online journals, but, as a bonafide medievalist, I can tell you they are more like common place books, as can McGee. Lance Koebel points to this Labyrinth entry defining the commonplace book. Swift, in his “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet” suggests that

A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there. For, take this for a rule, when an author is in your books, you have the same demand upon him for his wit, as a merchant has for your money, when you are in his.

Typically these books were compilations of brief passages, often with commentary, ordered topically or thematically—in short they were collections of commonplaces—or, for those with the Greek tongue, koinoi topoi, or loci communes, in the Latin .

The commonplace, as Richard Lanham tells us :

was a general argument, observation, or description a speaker could memorize for use on any number of possible occasions. So an American statesman who knows he will be asked to speak extempore on the Fourth of July might commit to memory reflections on the bravery of the Founding Fathers, tags from the Declaration of Independence, praise of famous American victories, etc. A few scattered traditional loci: death is common to all; time flies; the contemplative vs. the active life; the soldier’s career vs. the scholar’s; praise of a place as paradisiacal; the uses of the past; a short, celebrated life vs. a long, obscure one. (Lanham, Richard. Handlist of Rhetorical Terms (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1994).

Radio Userland

Radio Userland, or Radio, as it’s being called, is . . . huge. It’s more than a blog tool—because of the syndication, or “broadcast” features it offers, and the “news” database, which allows you to quickly, easily see headlines from other sites, and link to them.

There’s a reviewof Radio here on WinPlanet which offers a good description of blogs in general, but also suggests they are a Mac phenomenon. I’m not sure why the author sees blogs as a Mac thing–given the dominance of WIntel, I rather doubt it.

On the other hand, Mac users do tend to go for smart technology, and good design. Radio, while showing signs of being “smart technology,” is pretty low on the “smart design” scale. It violates a number of basic, standard Mac interface conventions, and the documentation is appallingly awful, in terms not only of the English but in terms of the lack of a useful instructions and a coherent structure. It’s far too frustrating for the average user— it looks and behaves like an early Beta version, not professionally released software. I wrote tech support a few short, specific queries and am looking forward to a response. Radio has enormous potential, not just for consumers, but in education.

On Blogging: What is it, and How May it Serve?

I’ve known about web logs, or blogs, as they are called, for about two years now. I started paying closer attention to blogs, and thinking about their instructional potential, last summer. But almost no one I’ve spoken to in the instructional technology field on campus has any idea what web logs are, or, if they do, why I think blogs have instructional potential.

So, you ask, what is a blog? Here’s my answer; it’s a way of presenting easily digested information from the web to the web, often in the form of annotated links, without knowing HTML or much about technology at all. No, wait, that’s not it; it’s more like a public (though they can be private or shared only with a few) online journal or writing space, . . . except there are blogs that are news sites, updated several times a day on specific topics.

Like any good blogger, I turned to the web for more information. Dave Winer of Userland, makers of Manila, one of the two most popular blog hosts/hosting software, has a history of web logs. He argues that Tim Berners-Lee’s very first page at CERN was a web log. Rebecca Blood has another excellent essay on the history of blogs.

Chris Ashley, Manager, New Program Development, IST/Interactive University suggests a blog is “something like an on-line journal, a web site an individual uses to write everyday, where all the writing and editing, and the whole look and feel of the site, is managed through a web browser from wherever the writer happens to be.” Chris’ three part essay on blogging and education is well worth reading.

Maybe I’m going about this the wrong way. Here’s an example of a blog; it’s my friend Paul’s iPaulo blog, and the first one I ever saw. Paul was one of the “happy few” who worked with me at Calliope Media; he knows useful technology.

His iPaulo blog got me thinking about blogs as tools for composition instruction, as ways of getting students to write in English, or French, or Vietnamese, or what ever, but getting them to write, and read, and think, in the language. Blogs like iPaulo are forms of free writing but the fact that they are public, “published” on the net, makes blog writers take them seriously. Getting students to write for an audience makes them really think about what, and how, they are writing.

But blogs don’t have to be “on line journals.” Dave Winer’s Scripting News is the oldest extant blog; it’s one of the blogs I check at least weekly as a good source for scripting news and information. The most useful instructional technology blog I know is David Carter-Tod’s SIT, or Serious Instructional Technology, but I also favor the venerable Tomalak’s Realm for always current information about web design.

There are other sorts of blogs, too. What you’re reading right now, of course is a blog. I thought I should try using one myself, as a way of figuring out how a blog might be used in teaching.

Blogs and Instructional Technology

I’m hardly the first to think of blogs for education; you might take a look at David Carter-Todd’s ruminations. The Curmudgeon, AKA John Marden, has a page of courses using blogs. Initially, I thought of offering our users a “Blog Tool” as effective tools for making class announcements, as a supplement to a bulletin/discussion board system, and as a way of fostering writing and community, without users needing to know HTML.

Blogs and CMS

But after I created a blog at Blogger, and realized how much of the process is template driven, I realized how similar blog systems are to CMS or Content Management Systems, like WebCT. I’m not the first to think of that either; see Shane McChesney’s Weblogging and Content Management Linkfest at his Skipping Dot Net blog. Clueful, a group of Australian CMS consultants, has a site just about CMSs, but they don’t include those designed for instruction (LMS). If you really get interested in CMS, there’s the CMS List too, which often refers to blogs.

Learning Management Systems

Technically, of course, WebCT, BlackBoard and the like are a sub-category of CMS; they are Learning Management Systems (LMS for those who thrive on TLAs), but they typically have everything a CMS has, with the addition of education specific features, like user tracking, quiz generation, grading functions, etc. Right now, there are a several open source LMS, like the nifty Class Web Mike Franks created, available via SourceForge, but the Big Names are BlackBoard and WebCT.

You can find several toe to toe comparisons of WebCT 3.1 and BlackBoard 5.0 on the net, like this one by Sabine Siekman of South Florida University. You can see the these two and 48 others compared by Bruce Landon, Randy Bruce, and Amanda Harby.