Who Owns History?

Since starting this blog and its associated website I have come to learn that local history is a very contentious subject. Initially I expected there may be some fierce debate about interpretation of facts, but I didn’t realise there would be problems over the ownership of our history. I recently published a post relating to John Todd, or “Donkey John” as he was known. This took the form of an interview with the Mayor of Ramsgate around 1932 and was given to me by the great grandson of John Todd, with his permission to publish it. The paper didn’t contain any reference to its source, and as the interview didn’t contain anything other than the words spoken by John and the Mayor I saw no reason for not publishing it. I have since been chastised for not asking permission and crediting its source, which I assume refers to who typed up the spoken word.

This begs the question, who owns the interview, and who owns local history? Copyright laws vary depending on the type of information, when and by whom it was produced, and sometimes how it will be used. For example, Ordnance Survey maps have a 50 year copyright but for other types of work created after January 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. My concern is not so much about copyright, but who owns the historical facts that are copied.

Most local history is taken from the written word which then becomes subject to interpretation. Clearly any interpretation belongs to the interpreter, but what happens when two people arrive at the same conclusion? Do I need permission to publish my own conclusions just because they may coincide with those of someone else? Another point of interest, most of my local knowledge must have come from the writings of others as I've only been around for 60 years. Does this mean I cannot publish my knowledge because someone else may own its written origin?

My own view is that however painstakingly historians research their subject, most local history is in fact a series of conclusions drawn from the writings of others that may or may not be correct. Debating these conclusions in public can only serve to enhance their accuracy, and therefore should not be stifled. This point of view can be born out by recent posts on the Thanet Online Blog relating to Tissot's painting.

Of course, if someone has painstakingly researched a subject and subsequently published it, he or she is more than entitled to a financial reward which should be protected by law. But does the author own the subject and subsequent conclusions that he or she has arrived at? Which brings me back to my original point, who owns local history?


Michael Child said...

Phil you know I really think that you are getting off quite lightly here, in some ways Thanet is the cradle of modern local history writing. In 1723 john Lewis published the first comprehensive history of The Isle of Thanet, other historians were not that pleased about it for a number of reasons, the following is an example of what they had to say about it:

"it has only an indifferent character and is a poor performance." Heame refers to "that vile, silly Pimp, that vile wretch, Lewis the Pyrate, the same poor writer that drew up and published Wicliffs Life. He is a Wiclivist, Calvinist, Puritan & Republican, and hath wrote and published divers other things of no manner of Esteem among honest learned men. Lewis has the character of a rogue and a villain."

Of course there were some errors and some were corrected in the second edition of 1736, some were not discovered for over 100 years.

As far as I can see Lewis spent about 30 years on the project and his only reward seems to have been 100 copies of his book, although he had to pay for the paper.

Not only did the other historians of the time consider that Lewis had pirated much of his material but they were furious that he had stooped to describe our fishing and agriculture.

“He has descended so low as to take Notice of Husbandry, and give an Account of the Manner of Dungmixen.”

Lewis’s work on Thanet was influential on Hasted’s history of Kent published about 80 years later, the Thanet section is pretty much the same – mistakes Dungmixen and all – brought up to date and as one of the great county histories Hasted’s was influential on the way English history was written subsequently.

Phil said...

Michael, having read the above I think you're right. I'm probably lucky to be alive! But this is the case with most things in life. If you poke your head up above the crowds you immediately become a target. That aspect of it doesn't bother me as I can easily press a delete button and get on with something else in life.

The minor altercation over “Donkey John” did focus my attention on who owns our history, and it appears to be a very contentious subject. Unless an historian was actually present at the time an event occurred, he or she must be using material recorded by someone else. Can you then claim any rights to conclusions based on that material? Once research has been published, it then becomes another reference along with the original document. Does copyright protect the conclusions or just the manner in which they are presented?

Another point is how you establish historical facts. For example, original documentation that you published on your blog shows that the structures supporting the cliff behind the Pleasurama site were built on substantial concrete foundations. I think it's fairly certain now that there are no foundations. One day it's a fact, the next day it isn't.

Local History is a grey area with regard to facts and ownership. I think the best approach is one of common sense and common courtesy, both of which are also open to differing interpretations! I believe if we share a common past, we share a common ownership of it. Anybody who researches it and presents it to the public should be entitled to whatever rewards they seek. But it would be a real shame if research wasn’t published due to lack of reward and consequently died with the researcher. I hope I don’t get shot for saying that!