James Rosenquist, Star Thief (1980). Image Source: Yale University Art Gallery/Yale Digital Commons.
Time is Space, Space is Time. In this philosophical and cosmological equation, space may seem more tangible. Philosophically, space is changing. And that change, a shift from real to virtual, initially seems comprehensible. Time's corresponding transformation, on the other hand, is obscure. So let us look at what is happening to space. I have posts here and here regarding the distinction between our lives in the real world and our lives in virtual reality. These posts confirm that it is becoming difficult to define reality solely in physical terms. As our understanding of that narrowing dichotomy weakens, what does it mean to exist in a different 'space'? And once we are there, how much control do we have over the virtual version of ourselves? Could the virtual Doppelgänger come back to haunt the real person?
The Economist has a good piece this week about the Yale Archives releasing research-worthy images of their holdings and fonds into the public domain (- thanks to N.). All the levelling implications regarding democratic access to free information on the Internet aside, this news item got me thinking further about the reverse impact of Public Domain copyright (a legal stipulation concerning a virtual condition) upon the legal and philosophical integrity of our physical existence. The report states that Yale and other top level global archives have legal property rights over the historical objects they are photographing. That is, they own the physical objects. By virtue of their physical ownership, they also conceivably have new copyrights over the images they make of those objects - a separate legal condition from physical ownership and original expired copyrights:
In this case, Yale has placed those images in the Public Domain, or more precisely into the Creative Commons, waiving their rights to control of the images, and allowing many images to have a high enough resolution online to support actual research. These collections now have separate physical and virtual existences, legally and literally - with two conflicting statements of ownership. What does it mean to exist in virtual reality? From the report:Until relatively recently, all work whose copyright protection expired existed physically in one way or another, either as a unique creation, like a sculpture, or an instantiation of a mass-produced item, such as a book. If it still exists, it must be in someone's hands. That someone could be a person, a government, academic institution, foundation or business.However, although institutions allow researchers to view manuscripts, paintings, etc, on site, nowhere are they obliged to do so. True, since the early days of the internet in the mid-1990s museums have tended to provide glimpses of otherwise hidden parts of their collections online. But these typically came in low resolution and with restricted rights. To obtain a high-quality scan or photograph of an item, institutions have hitherto tended to charge fees and impose additional restrictions on usage. The copyright may have expired, but the property rights have not.
Although most legal commentators would probably assert that a virtual legal status altering a physical legal status is absurd, over the long term it may not be. Could the virtual existence of these collections one day have an impact on Yale's original ownership of the physical objects themselves? What if the historical object was destroyed in a disaster, and all that remained was its virtual double online?WORKS in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner," the United States Copyright Office (USCO) asserts on this website. It then goes on to explain that the public domain is "not a place". So, what is it? Whatever it is, it seems to contain likenesses of things in two or three dimensions which, once in it, can be reproduced and fiddled with at will.
Now, imagine if that reverse logic were applied to us as online individuals. What happens if a virtual representation of you becomes more indelible, important, believable and bankable - than you? Could a person's status as a citizen one day be affected? Could his or her physical viability in society be redefined? I suppose this is a problem already faced by public personalities such as William Randolph Hearst after Orson Welles made Citizen Kane - and it is faced by celebrities who have public and private personae. How many people read the laws and regulations that govern their control over their personal information on sites like Facebook, or with companies or advertisers? Corporate entities already own information that has been willingly provided them. Could a Public Domain copyright over the 'virtual you,' or a corporate entity's ownership of the 'virtual you,' one day change your property rights over the 'real you'? Either way, it's best to get to know your virtual double. Look objectively, rather than subjectively, at your shadow self who lives in Cyberspace. This shadow, this virtual identical twin, is a different person, with a different legal existence. Who knows what your avatar gets up to when you turn your computer off? - Visit Yale Digital Commons here.
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