Cultural Production and its Discontents: Copyright, Commerce, and Invisible Labor

By alisonmacdonald

In Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy Robert McChesney (2013), Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, broadly characterizes copyright in the internet age as a tool used by media conglomerates to gain monopolistic control of digital channels of dissemination of cultural products. He describes the political machinations of the “copyright lobby” on behalf of the corporate media sector as, largely, an infringement of the “openness and egalitarianism” the internet initially promised, and consequently an assault on its potential to contribute to democratic culture and self-government (p. 124-125).

McChesney’s critique of corporate media’s use of copyright brings up the work of two other scholars: The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom by Yochai Benkler (2006) and “Critical information studies: a bibliographic manifesto” by Siva Vaidhyanathan (2005) which appeared in the journal Cultural Studies. In those works, both scholars identify the emergence of internet age information and communications technology as ushering in revolutionary possibilities for cultural conversation and production. Both emphasize the radical possibilities for creative collaboration that internet channels provide, and both identify implementation and expansion of copyright laws in the United States by entrenched media interests as serious challenges to realizing the full creative potential of those channels. Furthermore, like McChesney, both scholars link effective use and regulation of new information technologies to the responsible expansion of democracy.

Noticeably absent from all three scholars’ works is a substantive treatment of the principle of economic gain for individual authors as a vehicle for public benefit that, at least expressly, underlies copyright in the United States. In Copyright and Cultural Institutions: Guidelines for Digitization for U.S. Libraries, Archives, and Museums, authors Peter Hirtle, Emily Hudson, and Andrew Kenyon (2009) quote the Supreme Court’s explanation:

The economic philosophy behind the clause empowering Congress to grant patents and copyrights is the conviction that encouragement of individual effort by personal gain is the best way to advance the public welfare through the talents of authors and inventors in “Science and useful Arts” (p. 4).

It is clear that media conglomerates use and manipulate copyright through political pressure to consolidate their economic domination. It is also clear that such companies, like other corporate players in cultural production, negotiate through contracts and employment conditions with the individual actors who create, collaboratively or alone, the cultural products those companies offer to the marketplace and over which they claim and, legally, hold ownership. McChesney, Benkler, and Vaidhyanathan decry the oppressive and self-interested actions of those companies and their effect on the potential for unfettered creative work and innovation for the public good. But in the internet of “openness and egalitarianism” towards which those scholars write, would individual creators be adequately financially rewarded for their labor and thus incentivized to pursue creative work?

Initial indications are that a society and its financially interested parties that emphasize freely accessible information over the rights of copyright holders tend to deliberately obscure the labor of individual creative workers and thus rationalize those workers’ lack of economic gain from the cultural products they create. This is evidentially the case in the internet age, when individuals are encouraged to donate their labor to cultural projects, and are contracted by hour or by task by companies that use them as tools rather than employees. The issue is exacerbated by the invisibility of individual labor when rendered in digital form. As James Moor (1985), Daniel P. Stone Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy at Dartmouth College, wrote in “What is computer ethics?” in the journal Metaphilosophy, “Most of the time and under most conditions computer operations are invisible. One may be quite knowledgeable about the inputs and outputs of a computer and only dimly aware of the internal processing” (p. 6). The invisibility of computer operations also obscures the human labor involved in digital products. Creative cultural products rendered and disseminated digitally appear more and more like public goods, and less and less like individual creations. The October 2015 ruling in Google’s favor by the New York federal appeals court vis-a-vis Google Books and Google Book Search, while reasonable, does not treat the disrespect of copyright undoubtedly shown by Google when it digitized entire libraries of books under copyright, nor does it have any bearing on the company’s prospective future plans for the full scans of those books which it still holds. It seems that Google may be able to take the resources it wants regardless of legal ownership or procedure, and fight to a favorable resolution while counting legal fees as simply a cost of doing business.

Benkler (2006) warns that “The freedom of action for individuals who wish to produce information, knowledge, and culture is being systematically curtailed in order to secure the economic returns demanded by the manufacturers of the industrial information economy” (p. 16-17). But is a culture that denies the financial rewards due to individual authors by ignoring existing copyright likely to effectively advance the kind of collaborative creativity Benkler, McChesney, and Vaidhyanathan desire? The artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier has, in his book You Are Not a Gadget, written of the “impenetrable tone deafness [that] rules Silicon Valley when it comes to the idea of authorship” (Kakutani, 2010). The problem is exacerbated by the easy international dissemination of digital cultural products and the consequent clashes between U.S. and other countries’ copyright laws, as illustrated by the recent kerfuffle over recreation of Marcel Duchamp’s chess set. As Library of Congress general reference librarian Thomas Mann (2015) has pointed out, the only alternative to copyright restrictions appears to be “government-regulated control of information,” which carries problems of funding and coercion, so copyright will continue to obtain. It is to be hoped that the rights of visible and invisible individual cultural producers will be respected, as “Changes in technology do not produce changes…in the need to make a living” (p. 134-135).



Benkler, Y. (2006). “Introduction: a moment of opportunity and challenge” in The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press, 1–18.

Cohen, D. (2015, October 22). What the Google books victory means for readers. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Hiltzik, M. (2015, October 20). Copyright boon or bane? Google Books survives another legal challenge. Lost Angeles Times. Retrieved from

Hirtle, P. B., Hudson, E. & Kenyon, A. T. (2009) Copyright and Cultural Institutions: Guidelines for Digitization for U.S. Libraries, Archives, and Museums. Cornell University Library.

Kakutani, M. (2010, January 14). A rebel in cyberspace, fighting collectivism (Review of the book You Are Not a Gadget). The New York Times. Retrieved from

Mann, T. (2015) The Oxford guide to library research. 4th ed. Oxford University Press.

McChesney, R. (2013). Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. New Press. Chapters 3–5.

Moor, J. H. (1985). “What is computer ethics?” Metaphilosophy 16(4): 266–275.

Norton, Q. (2015, September 8). The international fight over Marcel Duchamp’s chess set. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Vaidhyanathan, S. (2005). “Critical information studies: a bibliographic manifesto.” Cultural Studies 20(2/3): 292–315.


Preserving Dissent: Labor Archives and Archivists’ Labor

By alisonmacdonald

The directory of labor archives in the United States and Canada compiled by the Labor Archives Roundtable at the Society of American Archivists makes it clear that preservation of, and access to, records concerning labor movements is a priority for North American institutions of status and power. The Labor Archives Roundtable aims to connect archivists, labor organizations, researchers, and institutions with an interest in records concerning labor to ensure preservation of and access to such records. In its directory the Roundtable lists archives in the field of labor in 30 U.S. states, among which New York is particularly well-represented by the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at the Tamiment Library at New York University, and the archives and library at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. This article will review some of the roles, contradictions, challenges and opportunities faced by archives that deal explicitly with the records of organizations like those in labor movements who challenge established social power relations.

When making decisions about preservation of, and access to, archival records, archivists face significant conceptual, technical, and social hurdles. One conceptual challenge concerns the natures of archives and archival work themselves. In 2002 archivists Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook made an argument for the creative social and historical powers of archives and for the resulting responsibilities of archivists. Their article, titled “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” asserted that traditional archival practice had clung to the conjoined myths of professional and archival neutrality. By refusing to recognize the role archives play as sites for the negotiation of social power and the creation of social memory, and the resultant influence of archivists upon that negotiation and creation, archivists refused accountability for their own roles in the perpetuance of existing social power relations. As Schwartz and Cook note, archives originate in the information needs and social values of the powerful; they are not spontaneously-occurring historical repositories but reflect instead the concerns of a society’s privileged classes. Without continual questioning by archivists, the records chosen for inclusion in an archive may well document and justify only the powerful.

This lack of questioning is dangerous because it implicitly supports the archival myth of neutrality and objectivity, and thus sanctions the already strong predilection of archives and archivists to document primarily mainstream culture and powerful records creators (Schwartz and Cook, 18).

The challenges faced by archivists include technical and social obstacles. As the article “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” by historian Roy Rosenzweig, underlines, “preservation of the past is, in the end, often a matter of allocating adequate resources” (Rosenzweig, 761). Writing in 2003, Rosenzweig focused on the new challenges of preservation and access posed by records in digital formats. He concluded that although the technical hurdles involved in archiving born-digital materials are substantial, “the problems are much more than technical and involve difficult social, political, and organizational questions of authenticity, ownership, and responsibility” (Rosenzweig, 748). Allocation of resources to preserve historical records is complicated when, as with born-digital materials, ownership of, and thus responsibility for, those records is diffuse and/or ambiguous.

Of course archivists focused on records pertaining to organizations, such as labor organizations, who challenge existing power relations are not immune to the reassuring inclination to view their profession as a neutral endeavor committed to safeguarding an uncontroversial historicity. Neither are they free of the technical, social, and political challenges facing archival work in general and the archiving of born-digital materials in particular. In fact, it could be argued that such archives face those hurdles to a greater extent than do less politicized archives as they document the more diffuse and less well-funded efforts made and media used by those who oppose the interests of society’s powerful. Nor does the existence of specialized archives that treat labor movements, such as the Kheel Center, the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, and the archives at the YIVO Institute, obviate the necessity for sensitive consideration of the ways in which such archives’ records should be preserved for future access. As political scientist Michael Lipsky noted in his 1969 paper, “Toward a Theory of Street-level Bureaucracy,” the existence of such specialized units may only reinforce omission of less powerful groups from consideration and responsible treatment by mainstream organizational efforts.

These units permit Street-level Bureaucrats to allege that problems are being handled and provide a “place” in the bureaucracy where particularly vociferous and persistent complainants can be referred. At the same time, the existence of the units deflects pressures for general reorientation (Lipsky, 19).

Archivists at Cornell, New York University, and the YIVO Institute are privileged and supported in their work by their affiliation with high-status institutions who enjoy substantial funding and influence. Similarly, the Progressive Librarians Guild, an organization committed to hosting discussion of radical and labor-related issues in libraries and library work, locates its archives at the American Library Association Archives. The American Library Association is a well-connected and funded organization whose stability and status will help to ensure the continued preservation of, and access to, those archives (housed currently at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). It can thus be seen that archivists who work with records that explicitly challenge existing power relations, and in archives that prioritize those records, do not enjoy a simplified approach to their material, but rather face a heightened need for sensitivity to the conceptual, technical, and social challenges faced by the archival profession in general. Specialized archives that prioritize the less powerful will need to ensure their own survival, likely by alliance with more powerful organizations. Archivists will need to include consideration of such relationships in their archival work if they are to achieve, as Schwartz and Cook enjoined, an opening of archives’ and archivists’ power “to vital debate and transparent accountability” (Schwartz and Cook, 1).


Works Cited

Lipsky, M. (1969). “Toward a theory of street-level bureaucracy.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, NYC.

Rosenzweig, R. (2003). “Scarcity or abundance? Preserving the past in a digital era,” The American Historical Review 108(3): 735–763.

Schwartz, J. & Cook, T. (2002). “Archives, records, and power: the making of modern memory,” Archival Science 2: 1–19.

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