Copyright laws come into existence in Europe with “the invention of the printing press” and increased “public literacy.” (Wikipedia) Prior to this invention medieval Europe tended “to view knowledge as the product and expression of the collective, rather than to see it as individual property.” (Wikipedia) Laws were passed in Britian that were aimed at breaking up monopolies of printing presses, and the individual rights of artists were recognized with the coming of the Enlightenment. (Wikipedia)
Copyright laws existed from the beginning of the United States. They aimed to recognize the rights of the individual artist, while simultaneously supporting an intellectual commons. Today that idea still exists, and is something that historians must wrestle with.
Copyright laws, and unintentional infringement of these laws is a nightmare of any historian wishing to produce digital works. Partly, because “collaboration” and “sharing” are an “integral to a field like history.” (Cohen and Rosenzweig) In other words a lot of the work we do as historians is built on the work of others. This is easily apparent during the research and writing process of any historical piece. We are able to borrow ideas from historians as long we recognize where that idea came from. If strict copyright laws, like the ones enforced on music, we would essentially be out a job.
“Fair use” laws allow historians “limited borrowing from the work of others,” and “was acceptable when that borrowing produces something new and useful.” (Cohen and Rosezweig) One problem I have with these laws is that who determines what is “new and useful?”