Copyrights and the threats of censorship

Between January 18 and 24, 2012 I have included in the top right corner of my blog a banner linking to the website on American Censorship which promotes the protest against the proposed SOPA/PIPA bills. Why this reference to current politics? Why this gesture? Perhaps because in the end politics will touch you, even when you stay aloof from politics.

On January 18, 2012 several websites black out during twelve hours as a more radical sign of protest against legislation which could allow the government of the United States of America to block websites completely. Among the protesters are the English Wikipedia and the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive is not only an archive for websites, but also a treasure-house for digitized books. Many eminent libraries contribute to it.

Almost a year ago the Egyptian government blocked the access to internet in Egypt. Only a few websites in Egypt could be reached within the country and from abroad. This contemporary development led me to write a post on Egyptian websites with the title “Switched off?”. Among the websites not touched in January 2011 by this act of censorship was a sister website of the Internet Archive maintained at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria. Today, too, it serves as the indispensable mirror of the project in San Francisco.

Yesterday I published a post about the mazarinades, the pamphlets and libels attacking the policies of cardinal Mazarin in seventeenth-century France. A pamphlet from 1651 with the title La Mazarinade coined the generic term for these pamphlets. Mazarin had the guts and wisdom to start collecting these pamphlets in a period which saw the growth of absolutist regimes. To put things into a sharper perspective, Mazarin had started in 1643 the first public library in France, the Bibliothèque Mazarine.

Historians and in particular legal historians cannot close their eyes to proposals which could in the end very well make independent and objective scientific research and free access to information impossible. Perhaps protection of rights is not so much the problem, but in fact it can become a tool of censorship in the hands of multinational organizations and governments fearing democratic control and the free circulation of news, ideas and goods. While at face value only protecting claims to copyright recognized by law it can become far more, even a legitimation of preventive actions. Claims to absolute protection of copyright are indeed claims, not per se facts. Claims to copyright on items clearly in public domain should be ruled out of court.

As for information on blogs, there are both commercial and public initiatives to transmit information from blogs without prior notification to authors. Thus some of my blog posts have appeared with clear indication of its origin at Criminocorpus Radar, the news bulletin of the French Criminocorpus project. I see this as a fine example of free dissemination of information. Nevertheless even I have added a disclaimer to my blog…

As for history online and the history of copyright, the website Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), created by the universities of Bournemouth and Cambridge, brings together a most useful selection of texts. To them you can add the digitized texts in the Archivio Marini of the Università degli Studi di Pisa.

Others have spoken and will speak surely more eloquently and persuasively than I about this issue. I am curious what will show up about this question at the websites of the United States Copyright Office, the Law Library of Congress and the blog In Custodia Legis, “In Protection of the Law”, where the law librarians of the Library of Congress express themselves on many matters. Will they speak out now, too? Anyway, the Library of Congress offers a sensible starting point for tracking the proceedings about the proposed bill. The library’s very recently launched subdomain Bills This Week to Be Considered on the House Floor gives an overview of bills under consideration. The THOMAS system of the Library of Congress for legislative information provides further links to the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PIPA and the actions undertaken by the American Congress.

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