Owner of a Lonely Heart

I’ve been alarmed about the corporate domination of the past, not only in regard to controversies like the Google book search, but in regard to the troubling “copyright” claims of image banks and historical societies. Should we allow companies (regardless of legitimate claims about the cost of historical preservation) to own huge swaths of image documentation as their exclusive property? In what way does this promote “progress in the useful arts and sciences”?

In the short term, the cost of digitizing, cataloguing, and indexing is staggering. To render these artifacts transportable and searchable is useful and certainly promotes progress. But what of the “term limits” of this sort of monopoly? Once the initial investment is made, should image banks be able to profit from them in perpetuity? This could easily become (if there is no term limit) the most profitable business venture ever, because access to the past will have a slow and steady demand from each successive generation. Who should own/control our access to the past?

A key distinction between Google and say, Corbis or Getty images, is that Google only controls the index it creates, not the artifacts themselves. The artifacts remain stuck in the dense amber of the “heirs and assigns” of individual creators. As far as I know, there is no search within Getty or Corbis for heirs and assigns. They claim all historic images as their property. Who can own the past? Only a corporation/trust/foundation that lives in perpetuity dare take things that far; mere mortals should not stake that claim (though they do).

The monster is strengthening its stranglehold, and is poised to be another ATT. Private efforts such as Corbis (in a striking parallel with Amazon’s early history) have yet to return a profit on their investments in images— but there is little doubt that they will. The question is, how can we ever “limit” this monopoly given the porosity of copyright. Should Getty own your grandmother and be able to charge usage fees for snapshots purchased from thousands of attics? Should they be able to do that forever? As the archival image business has crossed over a billion dollars in recent years, no wonder every archive wants to erect a fence in its yard.

I’m less scared of public institutional ownership (though it could easily be mismanaged too) than the corporate giants. But any way you look at it, the public trust (read: common stake) in preservation efforts is generally given little attention. This bothers me.