The Enclosure of the Historical Commons, part 1

Today, the Commons has become – one could say, returned as – a key political desire. From peasants to hackers, squatters to scientists,  shared resources for all to contribute to and benefit from are invented, built, defended, with varying degrees of success.

Alongside this, its nemesis Enclosure has become a key tool for understanding what we’re up against.

By the term ‘historical commons’, I mean all that has fallen into the public domain by virtue of the expiry of the term of copyright, that is, all that is unowned. It should be expanded to include physical items – just who owns the Roman ruins, medieval remains, or the works like paintings that are both physical and intellectual? – but for the moment, I will restrict myself to this.

Glyn Moody, author of the excellent Rebel Code, notes that the British Library has just digitized its 500,000th item, a copy of The Birmingham Daily Post from 1864, as part of the British Newspapers 1800-1900 project. Historical resources being made available to all? No:

To access the subscription-based articles in this database, you will need to first register as a user and then purchase either

* A 24-hour pass that provides you access to 100 articles over that period.
* A 7-day pass that provides you access to 200 articles over that period.

The first costs £6.99, the second £9.99.

Not only is this ludicrously expensive, it is hampered by the copyright restrictions:

You may not copy, display, distribute, modify, publish, reproduce, store, transmit, create derivative works from, or sell or license all or any part of the Content, products or services obtained from this Site in any medium to anyone, except as otherwise expressly permitted under applicable law or as described in these Terms and Conditions. You further agree that at no time you will cause or enable any person to access, view, receive or otherwise use any portion of the Content, directly or indirectly, without first paying a fee for such access and viewing, except as provided for herein.

And we can use it to write history how? We cannot afford it, we cannot use it, yet this is all public domain material and our common heritage!

Truly, capital, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

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