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historical research and drew particular attention to the troubling problem of perpetual Crown copyright authority over unpublished materials.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.