Professor Reflects on Copyright in the Digital World

International copyright is a thorny issue that creative digital projects are often choosing to “route around,” rather than directly engage with.

Visiting Assisstant Professor Andrew Famiglietti

That was the impression Visiting Assisstant Professor Andrew Famiglietti took away from his recent participation in the Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) workshop on “Authorship Dynamics and the Dynamic Work.”

Dr. Famiglietti was invited to participate in the one-day workshop in Cambridge, England on the basis of his unique expertise on the culture and practices of the Wikipedia project, the subject of his dissertation
and further publications.

The workshop focused on the problem of updating copyright and other forms of intellectual property law to meet the needs of emerging forms of digital authorship and collaboration. “It was really eye-opening for everyone involved,” said Famiglietti, “the way we study digital production often has a US-centric slant we don’t even recognize. It immediately became apparent to me that, for European scholars, the problems with copyright in the digital environment are only compounded by international boundaries.”

“They had a phrase for the process of syncing up IP law across different countries in the Euro zone, ‘European Harmonization,’ and I very quickly came to recognize the sort of tone of exhaustion and disdain that always went along with it.”

In Famiglietti’s opinion, the discussions surrounding Wikipedia’s relationship to copyright law were some of the most fruitful. “There was a long analysis of how poorly Wikipedia fits into the categories assumed by existing copyright law. It never really has a ‘fixed’ version, and the potential pool of ‘authors’ is very fluid. I pointed out that, in my experience, this misfit had never caused much of a problem for the community because they used alternate licensing schemes that served to de-emphasize these issues. In some cases, they added to this with ad-hoc practices, like encouraging re-users to link back to Wikipedia articles to provide attribution, that also served to ‘route around’ potential problems.”

While these practices have served Wikipedia well so far, Famiglietti wonders if they may not represent a final answer for the problem of copyright in the digital world.

“These sort of private, contract based solutions are what we expect from a somewhat libertarian hacker community,” Famiglietti points out, “and they work well enough, but they leave larger public policy questions unresolved. They may even mask the existence of these questions from members of the community.”

Ultimately, he thinks that calls for a better understanding of how categories like “author” and “work” are evolving as digital collaboration becomes a more important part of the social and economic landscape. “I’ve been talking to some of the other workshop participants about using the work of Bruno Latour to start trying to frame some of these issues. Maybe if we stop thinking of works as fixed things tied to fixed authors, and start thinking about how they function as networks of associations, we might make some headway.”