Interview: Monika Dommann on copyright and the place of the book in the humanities

This picture shows Monika Dommann. © Valérie Chételat

The Internet generation is putting copyright under pressure, and in academia, ‘open access’ is on the advance. But books as a medium are still of central importance for historical domains, says the historian Monika Dommann. By Urs Hafner

​Prof. Dommann, you’ve written a handsome, thick book about the history of copyright. Do you own the copyright to your book?

No. After working intensively on the book for ten years, I handed over the rights to a trade publisher. In return, I didn’t have to raise funds to cover the cost of printing, they hired an editor to proofread my book and graphic designers to produce a lovely cover for it and their marketing department is putting the right advertisements in the right places. I couldn’t have done all this on my own. Whether the decision was right is something I’ll only know in a few years, when the digital revolution has progressed even further.

For scientists and scholars, ‘open access’ is very much on the advance. The argument goes that publicly financed work ought to be made freely available. Why didn’t you put your book on the Internet as a PDF?

I certainly could have done. But I have too little faith in the Internet and its algorithms to be able to entrust my book to it. I don’t know which channels it might land in, or whether it would just be swallowed up altogether. In this case my personal interests are different from the public interest. But we have to ask: what is the ‘public interest’ anyway? Is it someone living on another continent who I’m excluding? Or is it you? I really don’t know. The ‘public interest’ is, just like the ‘author’, a fiction, one that for two hundred years has had to stand for all manner of things.

For artists, copyright secures them the ownership of their work. It protects intellectual property. But what is ‘intellectual property’ really?

Modern copyright was established in the late 18th century. It was intended to protect ‘intangible goods’, the products of people who worked with their minds. The aim was to give these people control over the reproduction and circulation of their works and provide a defence were their works were not used as originally intended. Copyright is based on a notion that is rooted in early modern times, namely that work done should be remunerated and that protecting intellectual property – i.e., the artistic, non-material product of an author – is in fact a contribution to progress in society. The utilitarian approach assumes that it wouldn’t be worth investing time and money in projects with uncertain outcomes if their products were not protected.

So was copyright an instrument developed by the emerging bourgeois, capitalist society of property owners?

Yes, it was a free market instrument that was intended to enable creative artists and all those working with their intellect – writers above all – to earn a decent living from their work. Copyright does not draw on any tradition or inheritance, but focuses on something new and useful that an individual has created. It thereby sets itself apart from what was the norm in the traditional societies and in the societies of ‘estates’ that by the 19th century were already seen as backward.

What is the view of copyright in the socialist tradition?

Pitting socialism against capitalism doesn’t work here. To be sure, the early socialist Proudhon rejected all forms of ownership. But in the 20th century even socialist states such as the Soviet Union and the GDR signed international conventions on copyright. Even in the capitalist USA, where a high value has always been placed on the idea of property, copyright originally only covered American publications. Until that changed in the early 20th century, American publishers had a carte blanche to reprint European publications as they saw fit. As a result, the Europeans regarded the USA as heel dragging pirates.

Copyright is under pressure from the Internet generation. For example, the Pirate Party thinks that films, texts and images should be freely available on the Internet. Are they right?

According to current law, of course, they’re wrong. But the law is also an arena for disputes. And copyright was always a matter of controversy. For a long time it was only argued about among small groups; the representatives of authors, publishers, the industry and media companies – all of them already experts in copyright – squabbled about royalties and how to formulate the law. The Pirates are the first group to have linked copyright with the topic of data protection and to have made it a matter of political and public debate. They are a social movement, like feminists or environmentalists.Whose interests do the Pirates represent? The interests of those who consume information technology and electronic entertainment. The Pirates refuse to accept a consumer should be criminalised just because he or she downloads films from the net. They therefore represent a morality of consumption that was already practised in the 1960s under the motto ‘It’s illegal, but is it immoral?’ The Pirate parties will disappear as soon as their policies are taken up by the traditional parties interested in winning votes.

You say that today’s debates about copyright are nothing new. When did copyright first come under fire?

Among scholars in the USA in the 1930s. When microfilms and photostat methods
became common, several academics realised it was in their interest to have their
books and articles copied and distributed as widely as possible, because it meant they
were cited more. That in turn increased their reputation, so they welcomed the
new medium. Libraries for their part were interested in putting journals onto microfilm and using this as a medium of distribution. This was cheaper for them than
buying books. In response, publishers and authors started a campaign against photocopying and took libraries to court. Each group was pursuing different interests. But scholars hardly raised their voices.

Why not?

That’s the question. When and why does a group organise itself to represent its interests? And why is it more common that groups don’t get organised? Scholars still
don’t know where their interests really lie in the whole copyright debate. They’re not even sure in times of change like today, when media use is being redefined and legal
relationships renegotiated.

How did the conflict between publishers and libraries end?

It fizzled out with the Second World War. But it then surfaced again when Xerox
copying spread in the 1960s. That was a turning point for the history of copyright.
Those in favour of copyright did succeed in linking payment to the individual use of
media – in other words, every institution that rented a photocopy machine had to
pay a fixed fee. But from that moment on it was impossible to control the number of
copies made, and so it was also impossible to control how often works were used. That is still the case. With a USB stick you can make one copy, a hundred copies, or none at all, and you can delete everything at the end. It makes no difference.

Does this mean copyright is being diluted?

The conflicts are intensifying. We’re in a state of permanent change. We have to
find out how best to use new media, and whether every use of a medium really has
to be coupled with a monetary payment, or whether we will have to develop other
modes of use. Pop music has already reacted to the disappearance of CDs. Concerts
have become important again, and crowd funding is replacing the income that fell
away when CD sales dropped. In science, we still need book publishers to act as a
filter and a guide to orientation. In the humanities, especially in narrative historical sciences, there is still the need for time to write books, because their form and content determine and influence each other. You need to use an epic form to analyse revolutions, evolutions and continuities.

Do conference proceedings really have to be printed?

Short texts such as conference papers are perfectly suited to the PDF format; they can be linked to databases and can be read on an iPad. Fewer books are being published, so publishers have to adapt to the Internet if they want to survive. Many will disappear. In an optimistic scenario, consumers and producers will come together and pull the rug out from under the big publishers – those, for example, who make too large a profit from expensive journals.

And what’s the pessimistic scenario?

Restrictions could be placed on copying unprotected material, thereby closing off
access to research data – audiovisual sources, for example. Or researchers with no idea of new media could fail to choose carefully among the distribution channels for their work. And then, when book production has become too expensive for them, they will find to their horror that those other channels have in the meantime ceased to exist.

Monika Dommann

Monika Dommann has been a professor of modern history at the History Department of the University of Zurich since 2013. Before that she was an SNSF Professor at the
University of Basel. Her habilitation thesis Autoren und Apparate. Die Geschichte des
Copyrights im Medienwandel (427 pp., 2014) has just been published by S. Fischer.

(From "Horizons" No. 101, June 2014)