When it comes to information in the digital age, the expectations of accessibility are enormous.

When information coming from a variety of sources become reused and reassembled, the role of tracking the source of information is increasingly vital. Having information at our fingertips is powerful, but it raises an important question: Where can we go to find out where information comes from, and how it’s been changed through time? 

Some institutions have provided an answer that points to widening access to knowledge and culture through an expansion of the public domain. These “memory institutions” have taken on active roles in digitally archiving historical works while attempting to define standards for collaboration and ownership. We’ll look at the topic from a historical perspective, the archiving of the Internet, and a cultural one: archiving online and digital artworks.  

Preserving digital democracy

When it comes to the preservation of digital history, there’s no greater resource than the Internet Archive, a San Francisco-based non-profit digital library that recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. The Archive has been on a noble mission to host the world’s entire collection of books, music, websites, images, and software, permanently.

So far, they have digitized 2.5 million books, with a goal of 10 million by 2020. Their goal is also to help people make sense of mass amounts of data, acting as gatekeepers to everything stored online, from web pages to political ads, but also providing tools to understand, rework, and share that content. 

Mark Graham, director of the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, reminds us that “the web is super fragile, and it is constantly changing. It is a collection of addresses, not a collection of things.” Everything on the Internet Archive is available for free, and the fossilization of the Internet by Graham and his team ensures accessibility to everyone, indefinitely.

Consider Wikipedia’s goal to accumulate “the sum of all human knowledge.” All of that human knowledge draws from other sources, and every Wikipedia article should be cited to some other source. When online references disappear, that knowledge becomes untraceable. The Internet Archive helps by creating links to archived versions of Wikipedia’s sources. That keeps free knowledge free, but also helps assure readers of its reliability. 

It’s a move that preserves an ever-changing wave of information, but also preserves historical context in a medium where context can be fleeting and flexible.

Remix culture 

Remixes and mashups are a big part of contemporary culture. A “remix” is any piece of media that has been altered from its original state to become something new. Most of us probably know the term from music, when artists create derivative works, mashups, or remixes. In this context, attribution remains a priority. In other situations, it’s not as straightforward.

Consider Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. Perhaps one of the most influential artworks of the 20th century, it’s not his own sculpture. Or at least, Duchamp didn’t mold it, or create the cast. It’s a readymade porcelain structure, commercially manufactured by (presumably) an unknown factory worker.

The piece we know isn’t even the original; there are 17 signed copies and countless remixes (including the most recent remix by Bay Area artist Jenny Odell for the Re:Dada exhibition in the swissnex gallery). Readymades raise the question of original authorship. 

That question has fascinated the art world ever since. In 2009, a fan of Snow White (who happened to be the Finnish artist Pilvi Takala) was prevented from entering a Disneyland park in Paris because she was dressed like the princess. Management of the park believed it would be “dangerous” to let her inside, and that she would confuse children into believing she really was Snow White. The line between originals and copies is complicated when a real woman is stopped by police because she too closely resembles a fictional one.

Artistic explorations explore tensions at the boundaries of “rights” in copyright and public domain cases. The argument behind these works is that expanding the public domain with more access to information, ideas, and cultural works is a cultural priority.

Sabine Himmelsbach, the director of the House of Electronic Arts Basel, believes that perhaps the current copyright system needs to start leaning towards becoming more “copyleft,” and encouraging different models, such as Creative Commons, to bring more media into a malleable state. Along the way, when properly used, these models create a trackable chain of authorship, by acknowledging the source pieces at each step. 

Copyright protection as the exception

This idea of the remix in the art world overlaps with the construction of knowledge in spaces such as Wikipedia or academia. In many ways, Wikipedia is also a “remix” from original sources. And while preserving that linear history of sources is crucial for reliability in knowledge, in the art world, it’s something to play with.

The common thread is that accessibility to information, and tracking the origins of that information, is essential for new combinations of ideas and knowledge. Keeping that history accessible is a crucial function of institutions, particularly in a digital era.

Daniel Boos, a partner of the media hacking group Dock18 in Zurich, works with institutions to help bring artworks into the public domain that can then be remixed by contemporary artists. For him, “digitization allows libraries and archives to provide access to their whole collection for almost everybody with internet access. Many people will never see the ‘original’ work, but just its copies,” he said. “With unlimited access, curation becomes increasingly important. Additionally, new technologies allow us to connect these works in many different ways.”

Organizations like Wikimedia and Communia Association aim to counterbalance this by continually bringing more forms of media to accessible platforms. If you ask Daniel Boos, his guiding principle is simple: “the public domain is the rule, copyright protection is the exception.”

The ability to rediscover and reuse more work from our past through an expansion of the public domain has exciting implications for our future. By bringing historical forms of media into an open realm and archiving them for future generations, we cultivate a stronger understanding of our own culture and our place in history.

Photo: Re:Dada exhibition, Artist Trading Cards by SwissnexSF/Myleen Hollero, CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.