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Texts and Ownership

(LPCA Editorial)

A concrete and practical reason to address this question was given to us by a colleague and contributor to LPCA who expressed concern that the publication of texts on our web-site may infringe on the property rights of their authors. Leaving aside the problems of reserving copy-right in a publicly accessible medium (and the technical possibilities to build safety- and protection-devices into texts that are included in our journal and archives); leaving aside also the argument that obligations to respect property rights for texts published electronically are in principle the same as the ones authors of printed text editions or ethnographies containing substantial texts have, we should make an attempt to formulate our views on the issue.

To begin with, given the legal complexities of copy rights and their application to the Internet, any attempt to come up with clear and binding guidelines could not but turn into a hopeless undertaking. A little imagination is enough to realize that even a team of legal experts (whom we cannot afford) would not be able to provide us with rules covering just the most likely contingencies. The only alternative is to acknowledge that LPCA works in an anarchic medium and to state a position from which we try to find practical solutions that we think are ethically defensible.

Generally, our point of departure must be that we work in a context of changing practices of academic publishing in several fields such as anthropology, folklore studies, and historiography. Specifically, keeping in mind the kinds of materials we plan to include in LPCA, we offer the following considerations:

  1. All the texts to be included in LPCA are (or were) part of research on expressions of popular culture (in Africa). They are published as documents, not as items destined to be used commercially.
  2. The only practical way to assign authorship to such material is to consider the researcher the author (henceforth in italics) in the sense that he or she takes the responsibility for the publication of texts they submit to LPCA, much in the same ways as they would do were they to include such material in print publications. Authors have of course also the responsibility for identifying those whose utterances or writings they offer as texts; this will normally be done in the Introduction to the published text and also by including the names of those who 'produced' the text in the title of the published document; Authors implicitly or explicitly guarantee that the material was obtained with the consent of the persons who were recorded by, or provided written material to, the author. We are aware that the terms employed in this statement -- utterances, writings, even recordings -- have varying and complex referents:
    • Utterances are made during speech events. They may be private or public. They may or may not be subject to discretion (because of their content) or to generic rules of communication (including "secrecy" in the case of religious teachings). Speech events may be performances of narratives (story telling), of poetry (for instance, the lyrics of songs), or of dialogue with a plot (theater). Some may be personal recollections and reflection (life histories), others may be narratives of shared memories (historical accounts). Another category of documents may be answers to directed questioning (recorded interviews) or responses elicited for, say, linguistic purposes.
    • Most recordings imply as a rule the presence of, and some degree of participation by, the author. But others may have been made by research assistants or provided by members of the community or group on which research is conducted. The latter will most often be the case with written texts but the author may have been involved in their production in the sense that he or she encouraged, supervised, or edited such documents.
  3. A useful distinction (admittedly not always easy to make) is one between texts that were produced and others that were collected by their authors.
    • "Produced" are texts that are the transcripts and/or translations of sound recordings of speech events made in the course of ethnographic inquiries. Such texts are produced with the explicit aim to include them in publications and with the explicit or implicit consent of the people among whom the author conducted research (this rules out texts based on recordings obtained surreptitiously). As it is hard to imagine nowadays a research group that is not familiar with the ethics of sound or video recording, few texts submitted to LPCA should present problems in this regard. Exceptions will have to be dealt with as they come up.
    • "Collected" are texts that in one or several phases were produced in the absence of the author. This regards mainly written documents but may also apply to recordings. Authors have the obligation to acknowledge (the degree of) assistance they had in making transcriptions and translations. Collected in a more narrow sense are texts that were previously published and/or deposited in archives. Such cases will of course require the usual references and acknowledgment of permissions. Concretely, we plan to make accessible in this category especially documents that are out of print and often no longer covered by copy-right (early vocabularies and language manuals, (textual material from) books that are no longer in print, and material from colonial publications, such as newspapers, school books, religious and commercial pamphlets, company publications).
  4. One of our purposes (and hopes) is to encourage speakers of the languages we intend to cover and producers of popular culture to submit texts (anecdotes, stories, memoirs, letters, plays, but also comments on published texts) to LPCA. Persons who send us such material for inclusion will be properly identified and acknowledged as authors.

As always, we hope this statement will cause comments and suggestions which will be published and may help us to clarify our position. Send your reactions to the LPCA-L list or send an e-mail to the editors of LPCA.

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published: 13 December 1999