Ownership, Copyright, and Privacy

Beginning with a story about photojournalism and combat in Afghanistan, it was difficult to understand how the ethical concerns regarding a soldier’s death might inform ethics concerning privacy and copyright in historical documents. By the end of the Radiolab episode, I understood the conflict. Time magazine owned photos of Jonathan Taylor’s face by way of their contract with the photojournalist present with the medevac team. Time owned the photos, but consent remained with the next of kin. In the end, the family was treated with respect – but the full story could not be portrayed to the general public. In a sense, the photojournalist was able to take rules and ethics previously determined and apply them to the present situation.

In dealing with the medical records of subjects in the 1960s south, concerns of privacy and personal information may be somewhat similar. When reading this particular chapter, I found myself immediately asking why the solution to this problem wasn’t to consider an Institutional Review Board permit or simply contact the next of kin. I was actually surprised that the writer took so long into the chapter to mention why an IRB wasn’t applicable in this situation. I personally feel that having a group of historians set a guideline of ethical behavior for their own field might be slightly problematic. IRB committees are comprised of individuals from different specialties who can take the rights, safety, and privacy of individuals into account. In a field where there might not be any true objectivity, is it possible to design an ethical set of guidelines that can inform historians on the potential risks of historical research?

I am biased toward ‘no’. If it is true that one cannot really get to the heart of objectivity within history, then how can historians take an objective stance toward the potential risks to human subjects? We can argue that this information is vital to research and can inform academics about past phenomena, but in the end – who benefits? Is it the families, similar demographic groups, historians, or everyone? How or why is this information important? Without a perspective outside of history’s immediate and collective perspective, I am not sure that we can fully understand potential ethical risks.

While an IRB might not be appropriate, I do believe that a multi-vocal and varied review committee is the key to understanding what is or is not appropriate when researching personal information in the recent past. This of course barring the possibility of the consent by next of kin or descendant groups.

As I am just becoming familiar with the theoretical perspectives of historians, I am glad to know that the field is concerned with privacy, copyright, and ownership of the past. This is an issue we deal with regularly in anthropology. Not only when dealing with the past – anthropologists (should be) are consulting with descendant groups about their feelings regarding their ancestral group’s history, and there are informed consent forms filled out prior to ethnographic research. One of the additional issues that has been studied in recent years is also the concern over intellectual property. How can we project a more modern social construction like copyright onto either past peoples or indigenous groups and their traditional knowledge? Or – how can we not?

-Sarah

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