Canadian Historians Should Sign the Public Domain Manifesto

"Captive Tomes" by traceyp3031

Historians know that our work is entirely dependent on access to and availability of sources, especially archival primary sources. Anyone who has spent months (and sometimes years) awaiting approval of a Freedom of Information Act request in Canada knows how frustrating limited access can be. It is a barrier to the free and open exchange of knowledge of our collective past. The global trend toward more restrictive copyright law stands as one of the greatest threats to our access to resources necessary for historical scholarship. As such, the public domain — our shared knowledge, culture, and resources that can be used free of copyright restriction — plays a critical role in our work as historians and we should uphold it.

The Canadian Historical Association’s recommendations to the 2009 Canadian Copyright Consultations made an excellent case for the significance of the public domain to historical research and drew particular attention to the troubling problem of perpetual Crown copyright authority over unpublished materials. This and other barriers threaten to limit the scope of the public domain and the ability of researchers to access historical resources.

COMMUNIA, the European Thematic Network on the Digital Public Domain, recently produced The Public Domain Manifesto, an omnibus statement on the importance of the public domain for cultural production and community knowledge. The Manifesto includes several recommendations and reforms to protect and enhance the public domain. Regarding these recommendations, COMMUNIA specifically cited its “particular relevance to education, cultural heritage and scientific research.” That includes Canadian and environmental historians.

I hope that historians will read The Public Domain Manifesto and sign their name to its principles and recommendations.

3 Responses

  1. I think there needs to be a distinction between academic and bread-n-butter works. Academics write academic works as part of their job. You don’t make any money from your journal article, and likely don’t make much from sales of your book. But, there are plenty of people out there writing for a living and if they gave it all away to the public domain, they wouldn’t have any means to provide for their families.

  2. And I should add, there are plenty of people who would call themselves “historians” who fit into the latter category.

  3. Your point is true, Adam. However, I don’t think the Public Domain Manifesto suggests that historians (and other authors) should all release their work into the public domain freely. In fact, it supports copyright protections to ensure that authors are rewarded for their intellectual labour:

    “Copyright protection should last only as long as necessary to achieve a reasonable compromise between protecting and rewarding the author for his intellectual labour and safeguarding the public interest in the dissemination of culture and knowledge.”

    The point of protecting and preserving the public domain for historians is to guarantee that cultural resources won’t be locked behind perpetual copyright walls, not that copyright law should be abolished.

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