The Enclosure of the Historical Commons (2): Murdoch Junior

Last week James Murdoch spoke at the launch of UCL’s new Centre for Digital Humanities. Quite why they invited him I don’t know, for he appears to have no idea of what the Digital Humanities are. That said, his speech got plenty of media coverage, so it may have been a clever piece of publicity-mongering.

Notwithstanding his protestations to be speaking “as dispassionately and factually as I can”, it was a partisan and aggressive statement for the so-called “creative industries.” The usual suspects were lined up: the BBC, file sharers, the public sector, search engines, digital utopians et al. The notorious Tera report was cited, apocalyptic visions of redundancies painted (how ironic coming from Wapping), government enforcement of “basic property rights” demanded, Sky iPhone apps and Fox films promoted.

(It was also semi-literate: “almost exactly”; “the era of Pope, and Johnson, and writers after them.” As for the trite Tolkein quotation, was he trying to show he was down with the geeks?)

But it was the attack on the British Library’s newspaper digitisation program that garnered most of the headlines; see, for example, The Indy and The Guardian. The library’s project aims to turn some 40 million pages of their newspaper holdings into searchable, preservable, accessible, distributable text; a great resource for historians. The majority of this material is clearly out of copyright and in the public domain. Where it is not, there will be agreement with, and remuneration for, the copyright holders. The press release states:

…. the partnership will also seek to digitise a range of in-copyright material, with the agreement of the relevant rightsholders. This copyright material will, with the express permission of the publishers, be made available via the online resource – providing fuller coverage for users and a much-needed revenue stream for the rightsholders.

So what’s Murdoch getting so angry about? Immediately, competition with It’s curious he didn’t take the opportunity to plug that product along with all the others. But there’s something else: free content.

Just yesterday, the Library announced the digitisation of their newspaper archive – originally given to them by publishers as a matter of legal obligation. This is not simply being done for posterity, nor to make free access for library users easier, but also for commercial gain via a paid‐for website. The move is strongly opposed by major publishers. If it goes ahead, free content would not only be a justification for more funding, but actually become a source of funds for a public body.

As the old saw goes, there’s free as in freedom, and free as in beer. One means the freedom to use a resource in any fashion, the other simply not to pay for something. The British Library project is not free in either sense, as I’ve previously shown. Likewise the Times archive.

Clearly, the “free content” referred to is material on which copyright has expired and which is now in the public domain. It can be used in any way anyone desires. The problem is obtaining it. That means only certain institutions, the British Library and News International alike, can take advantage of this common wealth, and enclose it with an array of technological (DRM), financial (paywalls) or contractual (the terms of use and copyright claims over remastering into digital formats) fences.

For Murdoch, this isn’t enough. He believes the Times archive is his inviolable property. Although in practice only the British Library can compete with him, the root problem is that this material is in the public domain. Consequently, not only does he berate public sector competition for “profiting from work they do not create”, but demands that only the creative industries should be allowed to “develop and protect the value of what they create”,  even where copyright has lapsed. This privatisation envisages the digital humanities as an adjunct to commercial exploitation, in line with current ideologies of the “impact agenda” and business-driven education; and it dramatically diminishes our historical commons.

Standard caveats: I am not a lawyer. Nor do I play one on TV. Nor am I a mind-reader with privileged access to the inner workings of the mindset of the wealthy.

See also  Richard Lewis and The Guardian.

You can read the transcript here and here. Curiously, neither page has an explicit copyright statement, so presumably both sites are claiming the rights to the lecture!

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1 Response to The Enclosure of the Historical Commons (2): Murdoch Junior

  1. Pingback: Anterotesis » Murdoch redux

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