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Archiving Our Digital Heritage

Archiving our digital heritage becomes more important each day. We all generate an incredible amount of cultural and social content. As I wrote in my article, Property, Persona, and Preservation, “Before one can access, one must preserve.” Thus, I am happy to see what appears to be an movement towards greater preservation of our digital culture. But, I am also wondering about the implications of these efforts for intellectual property.

First, there are some different preservation efforts to consider. The NY Times ran a piece about Emory University’s attempt to archive Salman Rushdie’s work from book material to letters to digital artifacts. In addition, Carl Malamud has found yet another way to help reserve our digital knowledge. His latest project, the International Amateur Scanning League, hopes to upload the National Archives’ collection of 3,000 DVDs to YouTube by rallying volunteers to crowd-source the immense project. The idea of increasing access to the National Archives seems brilliant. The Times notes that great information including “an address by John F. Kennedy; a silent film about the Communist ‘red scare’; a training video on farming; and a Disney film for World War II soldiers about how to avoid malaria, in Spanish” has been uploaded. Furthermore, C-SPAN is now putting up 23 years worth of its video history online for free at Just how much droning one may want to watch is beyond me, but if the archive is searchable, the ability to dig up even more about any candidate will mean greater election madness, and I’d bet reduce any legislator’s chance of winning the White House even more than is already the case.

In general, these projects present some fascinating questions. As the Rushdie article notes, the technical questions about preserving the data so it does not decay and having systems that can even allow access to the material are complex:

Mr. Rushdie’s outdated computers presented archivists with a choice: simply save the contents of files or try to also salvage the look and organization of those early files. Because of Emory’s particular interest in the impact of technology on the creative process, Naomi Nelson, the university’s interim director of Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, said that the archivists decided to try to recreate Mr. Rushdie’s writing experience and the original computer environment.

The National Archives project will most likely run into a lawsuit for “Although the DVDs are all technically available to the public, they are hard to see unless a person visits the archive or pays for a copy via With the scanning project, they are a few mouse clicks away.” That points says to me that there may be some money claims hiding in the background. In addition, some of the works in the Archives may be subject to estate license restrictions. I think the resistance will occur despite the government’s desire to expand access to government information repositories. Like the Google Book Project, I would expect publishers to rush in and cry foul. Authors may do so too. As shown by the Google deal and in publishing in general, the status of who holds the digital rights for older material is likely specific to each contract. The messy anti-commons problems await. Still, assuming the project is permitted, it is great to have the material more easily available.

As for C-Span, I look forward to seeing whether this amount of access improves debate or hinders it. One might be even more circumspect about how one argues in the empty chamber or one may grandstand even more in the hopes of catching attention.

For me, digital archives present an excellent way to press on what we want out of our intellectual property, education, and information policies. These archiving efforts show different slices of the opportunities and problems that we are quite fortunate to have.