Speakers at Convocation on Humanities Warn About Privatization of Materials (CHE)

May 15th, 2006 by Ross Scaife

(An excerpt from an article by Richard Byrne in the CHE — subscription needed)

A joint convocation held by the American Council of Learned Societies and the Association of American Universities to assess the state of the humanities drew over 200 scholars and administrators — as well as two prominent Congressional advocates for arts and letters — to a hotel here on Friday.

The convocation, which was pegged in part to a 2004 report issued by the association, “Reinvigorating the Humanities,” eschewed much of the doom and gloom that has surrounded such gatherings in recent decades. Speakers largely agreed that scholarship in the humanities was vigorous, but that the disciplines still faced serious challenges posed by the digital revolution, a rigidity in academic organization, and a lack of public outreach.

Ideas that struck the strongest chord at the convocation included a call from some speakers to resist the increasing privatization of the raw material of scholarship by corporations as such material is digitized.

Changes in copyright law to extend the length of time that material remains in copyright and efforts by companies such as Google to digitize books into privately controlled databases have increasingly placed the source material that scholars in the humanities use in private control for longer periods of time. Both access to such material and permission to reproduce it in published scholarly work have been tightened significantly.

Paul N. Courant, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, argued that such trends are leading to “a pervasive inaccessibility of cultural materials.”

“The humanities are at risk here,” he said at one of the convocation sessions. “We risk losing our own source material. There will be a hole in our history.”

He recommended that universities wage an aggressive campaign to defend and extend the “fair use” provisions of copyright law.

“Scholarship is fair use,” Mr. Courant declared. “Period.”

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