The primary intent of copyright law was to protect the integrity of an individual’s work – to prevent trade secrets from going abroad and undercutting profits. Thanks to efforts by Mark Twain and others, the scope of copyright expanded from industrial patents to creative works. Since then, the original purpose of copyright law seems to have been overshadowed by commercialism and greed.
The main issue here is one of academic honesty. As scholars we have a responsibility to treat others’ work with the same respect we would want for our own – a sort of academic golden rule. As long as we are attributing credit appropriately, not abusing fair use, and building upon – rather than claiming as our own – the creations of others, digital humanists should not be stifled by the fear of lawsuits.
The trouble, unfortunately, with “digitizing everything” is that making an honest profit off one’s own work may become more difficult. However, just because material is digitized doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be free. Smaller fees could be charged for use. Especially after the original creator has passed away and can no longer profit from their own work, it is unreasonable for their family to continue to profit exorbitantly off work that is not their own. I think it’s safe to say that most artists and scholars aren’t in it for the money, but for their work to be seen and shared, enjoyed and critiqued, and used to entertain and increase knowledge for generations to come. As a friend of mine said just today on Facebook, “writing can, and does, change the world” – and the same can be said for any other type of creative work. If we have that kind of power – and we do – why wouldn’t we want to share?