Archive | February 2014

It’s the culturomics, stupid

The Internet Archive is pretty awesome. But the Google Ngrams tool, which allows anyone to search millions of books from 1800 to 2008, is pretty neat too. This tool is part of a new field called “culturomics” which is the study of historical trends by quantitatively analyzing words from a very large digital data set, like Google Books. (Ironically, if you do an Ngram search for culturomics you get an error message since it hasn’t entered the corpus of digitized books yet.) Culturomics has led to some cool discoveries, especially related to the development of the modern English lexicon. Here’s how it works, in graphic form:

Steps for Ngram (and similar culturomic tools): 1) Books are written 2) Google scans books 3) Ngram analyzes selection 4) user searches

Steps for Ngram :
1) Books are written 2) Google scans books 3) Ngram analyzes selection of books 4) User searches for specific words

Personally, I found most fascinating the ability of culturomics to predict, retroactively at least, the location of Osama Bin Laden to within 200 kilometers of his eventual hideout in Abbottabad. Using mentions of Bin Laden in Summary of World Broadcasts, which tracks global news outlets, researchers realized that the two cities “identified” closest with Bin Laden were Islamabad and Peshawar. Lo and behold, Abbottabad is within 200 kilometers of both cities.

Geotagged mentions from 1979–April 2011 mentioning “bin Laden”. They “converge” in north Pakistan where bin Laden was found in May 2011.

But as Patricia Cohen wrote in her New York Times article when the Ngram too was first released, this groundbreaking historical research tool was not without its initial detractors. There are two main complaints from traditional historians: 1) only academics from the sciences, and not the humanities, were part of the initial research and study; 2) this tool doesn’t allow for close readings or interpretation (as Elena Razlogova describes it “today builders of digital tools and archives herald a non-interpretive, ‘post-theoretical age'”).

I think those complaints are missing the point. This tool, like so many other digital resources, is not about replacing traditional historical approaches, but is about giving historians and other “humanists” supplementary tools that are only now possible thanks to the power of the internet. As one of the creators of the Ngram project said “I don’t want humanists to accept any specific claims — we’re just throwing a lot of interesting pieces on the table.” So unlike quantitative history, which has more or less faded out as a historical method, I believe this tool is here to stay.

(Up next: creating an actual chart using Ngram!)


A Vast Wonderland

I’ve written about the Internet Archive a few times on this blog; it’s the best thing I’ve discovered in my recent exploration of digital historical resources. I’ve mostly used its Wayback Machine to look at some of the billions of pages of the internet it has saved, but it also preserves books, films, music and a lot more.

Included in “more” is the Television News Archive. This archive allows users to search closed captioning of news broadcasts, streaming the results in 30 second clips. Originally created in September 2012 to track television news coverage of the Presidential Election from two local stations (one in San Francisco, one in D.C.), the project has continued past its original scope. Recent topics include Jason Collins, Victor Yanukovych, and Whatsapp, and the original networks have now expanded to include Comedy Central, BBC America and Univision (though only news programs of those networks are covered.) The TNA has archived over 542,000 news broadcasts.

Like many efforts of the Internet Archive, the TNA theoretically is in a gray area of copyright law. Like the webpages the Wayback Machine preserves, the broadcasts in the TNA are not copyrighted by the Internet Archive. However, it is clear that the TNA’s use of these copyrighted broadcasts is fair use.

First, let’s assess the TNA according to the four factors of fair use:

  1. Purpose of Use: TNA’s original purpose was “to help engaged citizens better understand the issues and candidates in the 2012 U.S. elections.” Though that purpose has expanded past elections, the central tenet of furthering American civic engagement and education still exists.
  2. Nature of Copyrighted Work: The original material, though copyrighted itself, is heavily reliant on Fair Use since the images used are not owned by the broadcast. (For example, in the Jason Collins mentions linked above, the clip of Collins entering the game is not copyrighted by the local news stations.) The original material is (mostly) educational.
  3. Extent of use: With only 30 second clips of the news segments available, the archive only shows a very limited extent of the copyrighted material.
  4. Financial implications: There is no direct economic benefit for the Television News Archive (or IA in general) since it is a free service. Meanwhile, past news broadcasts are not “sold” to the public like say old episodes of sitcoms are.

However, the courts currently place less emphasis on the four factors than on the “transformativeness” of the Fair Use claim. On this account, the TNA passes as well. By allowing the public to compare broadcasts from around the country side-by-side, the TNA adds an extra layer of meaning to these copyrighted informational programs.  If you don’t believe me, then listed to former FCC Chairman Newton Minow — who called television a vast wasteland in 1961. On the archive’s statements of support page, he says “The Internet Archive’s TV news research service builds upon broadcasters’ public interest obligations. This new service offers citizens exceptional opportunities to assess political campaigns and issues, and to hold powerful public institutions accountable.” As my emphasis shows, Minow’s support directly explains the transformativeness of the TNA.

Just another reason the Internet Archive is so critical.

Great speeches in American Political History

Last night in my class on Presidential Elections, my professor called William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896 the most important political speech in American history. His argument was that it forcefully argued for the U.S. to adopt bimetallism, led to the rise of Bryan as a political figure and Populism as a central plank of the Democratic Party’s platform, and started the ideological shift of the Democratic Party towards a more activist approach (which culminated in FDR’s Presidency). That said, Bryan probably was already in place to secure the nomination, he lost the election to McKinley anyway (plus 1900 an 1908), the U.S. eventually adopted the Gold Standard, and the Populist movement wouldn’t be a major political player until 28 years later.

The comment was said kind of off-hand, so I don’t think the professor necessarily believes it to be THE MOST IMPORTANT SPEECH ever given by an American political figure in the history of the country (for this reason I won’t specifically name who said it.) Rather, the argument probably was that it’s one of the most significant speeches in U.S. political history, though arguably the most important one in late 19th century America (the topic for today’s lecture).

That said, I thought it would be a fun little exercise to list the speeches that I personally think are more important. To limit myself to comparable speeches, there are two rules: it must be given by a President or Presidential candidate like Bryan (for example nothing by delegates to the Constitutional Convention, John C. Calhoun or Martin Luther King) and it must be an actual speech, not a written address (for example George Washington’s farewell or Jackson’s Bank Rechartering Veto Message.) I’ll provide some links, but I didn’t consult any major lists or articles. Instead, off the top of my head, here are five speeches I consider more important than Bryan’s:

  1. Washington’s first inaugural address, 1789: like many aspects of Washington’s presidency, this was precedent setting, establishing the practice of an incoming president setting forth his agenda with an inaugural speech. Its themes were echoed in Washington’s farewell, which I’ve disallowed from this list.

4. JFK inaugural address, 1961: The first Presidential inauguration broadcast in color on television, this short 14-minute speech famously implored Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Though Kennedy’s presidency would last less than three years, starting with this speech it set the tone for the rest of the tumultuous decade of the 1960s.

  1. Ronald Reagan “Tear down this wall,” 1987: I don’t support all of Reagan’s policies, but it’s hard to argue he did not play a role in the end of the Cold War. Although Reagan was not President when the Berlin Wall did come down in November of 1989, this speech set the stage for the Communist leadership to tear down this lasting symbol of the iron curtain.

  2. Franklin Roosevelt “Day that will live in infamy,” 1941: I easily could have put FDR’s first inaugural here, with its statement that “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” But that would be too many inaugural speeches. Plus, I think the Infamy Speech asking Congress to declare war on Japan, sending the U.S. into World War II, had more impact on American History. It inspired Americans and eventually led to a complete mobilization of the home front, which finally led us completely out of the Great Depression.  Lastly, the the ensuing declaration of war (along with the separate declarations against the other axis powers) was the most recent, and perhaps last ever, time the U.S. officially has declared war.

  3. Tie: Abraham Lincoln Second Inaugural and Gettysburg Address: OK I’m cheating here by listing two Lincoln speeches. But as a historian interested in Lincoln, it’s hard to limit myself to just one speech of his! Heck I probably could do a top five just of Lincoln speeches in addition to these two (first inaugural, house divided, Cooper Union, The Sheep and the Wolf parable, last public address). But these two speeches, both of which are enshrined in the Lincoln Memorial, really resonate with me. The former, with its biblical references and deep anguish over the pain of slavery really show the toll the war took on Lincoln, as well as provide insight into his spiritual beliefs. And the latter, established a new purpose for the United States (aka a new birth of freedom) and managed to summarize the most pivotal event in Amercain history in just ten simple but effective sentences. Truly an inspiration to us all.

Am I missing your favorite speech? Or do you think I overrate any of these? And what are your thoughts on the Cross of Gold?

Home of the Free Culture, Land of the Brave Pirate

When I’m doing work, I like listening to classical music. One of my first exposures to it was the Disney movie Fantasia. Like many early Disney movies, it was quite revolutionary for its time, mixing animated scenes with famous classical scores. Sometimes I like watching clips from the movie as a study break, and the other day I wanted to watch the clip scored to “Night on Bald Mountain.” Here’s what the first video result on YouTube looked like:


Oh well. Maybe I can view the clip of unicorns dancing to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony:


No dice.

However, I did come across this masterpiece:

Yes, this is the “Candlelight mix” of Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch” set to the animation from Fantasia.

It’s understandable Disney wants to protect its copyrights and clearly fought to do so with YouTube. So why didn’t they successfully take down the video “Emimi225″ created? After all, the video includes previously copyrighted music and animation. Part of the reason for this is fair use. Emimi225 was able to freely remix previously created cultural icons to create their own cultural output because this country inherently has a free culture.

Lawrence Lessig would be happy.

Ten years ago Lessig, a legal scholar currently at Harvard, argued in his book Free Culture that the ability of the Emimi225s of the world to create works such as the mashup clip had recently become severely limited due to a strengthening of copyright law — in favor of major media companies that hold these copyrights, not creators like Emimi225. This change, Lessig wrote, flew in the face of our nation’s strong history of free culture. “The current reach of copyright was never contemplated, much less chosen, by the legislators who enacted copyright law.” (page 141). Instead of protecting the creativity of the “Emimi225s” of the country, the law has instead increasingly benefited big corporations (page 8). To combat this, Lessig pleads that “the Internet should at least force us to rethink the conditions under which the law of copyright automatically applies” (page 140). Though some of Lessig’s argument is now outdated, he still paints a fairly accurate (as well as bleak) picture.

According to Lessig, “free culture” has always been a central aspect of American society. Article I Section 8 of the Constitution enumerates the powers of Congress, including the power to “secur[e] for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” specifically in order “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” However, as Lessig writes, over the course of the second half of the 20th century, copyright law became significantly more restrictive, as “limited Times” have been extended to upwards of 100 years, “Authors and Inventors” have became simply “creators” and “Writings and Discoveries” have became any kind of created material, including music, architecture and software.

Lessig argued against this erosion of free culture in the Supreme Court case, Eldred vs. Ashcroft, 537 US 186 (2003). That case challenged the constitutionality of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which effectively froze copyrighted works entering the public domain by extending their copyrights another 20 years to the standard of life of the author plus 70 years. Lessig’s main argument was that this violated the “Progress” clause of Article I Section 8 by effectively circumventing the “limited Times” requirement. Unfortunately, the court upheld the law by a vote of 7-2, and Lessig blames the result on his mistake of not focusing on the Act’s potential to stifle creativity. Lessig believed that instead of fear mongering, he should have tried to persuade the justices that the Sonny Bono Act was unconstitutional on logical, not emotional grounds (see pages 228-248).

Lessig believes blindly renewing copyrights will stifle creativity. He argues that we’re all “pirates” who “steal” from previously created culture, and always have been. For example, Walt Disney himself, whose copyright heirs block me from watching Fantasia, used the Brothers Grimm, and other “public domain” tales, as inspiration for his movies. “Stealing” the central themes and characters of these works (if not all the surprisingly gruesome plot details), Disney built an empire of impressive animated cartoons that far outstripped the competition. In fact, Lessig terms this type of cultural stealing/inspiration as “Walt Disney Creativity” or “a form of expression and genius that builds upon the culture around us and makes something different” (page 24). He also explores how the “norm of free culture has, until recently and except within totalitarian nations, been broadly exploited and [been] quite universal,” using as an example Japan’s strong tradition of unauthorized versions of popular graphic novels. The key difference in Japanese culture, as opposed to ours, is a lack of lawyers and corporations willing to use lawyers for litigation (pages 25, 27-8). Following Lessig’s logic, preventing “Walt Disney Creativity” — by extending copyright for so long — will halt “progress of science and useful arts.”

Lessig published his book ten years ago, so some things are out of date. For example, his discussion of fair use is under developed, especially considering there has been an increased recognition of fair use in the courts since 2004 (See Aufderheide, P. and Jaszi, P. Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright). In addition, there is no discussion of Social Media. With its 2004 publication date, Free Culture is exactly as old as Facebook, and predates YouTube by one year, Twitter by two years and Instragram by six. With so much “pirating” and sharing on these social networks, one wonders how Lessig would view them. After all he views circa 2004 blogs as “arguably the most important form of unchoreographed public discourse that we have.” (An early example of blogs directly impacting society is their exposure of Trent Lott’s history of “misspeaking” about segregation (page 44).)

Still, as an early manifesto detailing free culture in the mid-2000s, Lessig’s Free Culture is relevant to appreciating Internet culture today. Brewster Kahle, who is a major internet activist, receives an entire chapter in Lessig’s book. Described as the “Andrew Carnegie of the Internet,” Kahle notes that restriction of creativity Lessig wished he had argued more clearly in the Eldred case is “No way to run a culture” (page 47). Lessig applauds Kahle’s Internet Archive project, stating that without IA’s attempt to archive and preserve the Internet, websites will function like the retroactively updated newspapers of 1984 that were constantly changed to reflect the current political climate, resulting in historical memory loss (pages 108-9).

In the end, Free Culture still holds up as an important concept worth defending, although 10 years after its publication it could use some updating. Lessig has since focused on calling a second Constitutional Convention. So he may not update Free Culture very soon. Perhaps some “pirate” could exercise his or her “free culture” right and adapt a 2014 version.

“How Sleep the Brave Who Sink to Rest”


Circa 1861-1865 photo of Soldiers’ Home Cemetery (courtesy New York Public Library)

Ever since college graduation, I have been fortunate to work at a place I truly believe in – President Lincoln’s Cottage. From June through November of 1862, 1863, and 1864, Abraham Lincoln lived in a cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home in Washington D.C, commuting each day by horse to the White House. While at the Cottage in 1862, he developed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in Confederate territory and led the way to abolition of slavery in the United States. In addition, Lincoln met with members of his cabinet, generals of the Union army, and interacted with all sorts of visitors. For these historically significant reasons, President Bill Clinton named the site a National Monument in 2000. After an eight-year restoration by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Cottage opened for tours on President’s Day 2008. (If you haven’t gone yet I highly recommend it; as the only National Monument in the country that doesn’t receive regular government funding, we rely on earned income such as ticket sales and donations!)

The Cottage, in addition to serving as “the Cradle of the Emancipation Proclamation,” also influenced Lincoln’s presidency by virtue of its proximity to the first National Cemetery. Hauntingly, Lincoln witnessed hundreds of burials, as the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery lies just a few hundred yards from the Cottage’s front steps. The precursor to Arlington, this cemetery (today officially called “United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery”) was created in 1861 in the immediate aftermath of the First Battle of Bull Run. Lincoln often visited the cemetery, and one California visitor recalled him reciting lines from William Collins’ poem “How Sleep the Brave” as he walked among the graves. Clearly living so close to such a busy cemetery affected the President.

Working with my colleague Evan Phifer — who serves as one of our Historical Interpreters that lead tours of the Cottage — we hope to create a viable digital resource documenting this underrepresented part of Lincoln’s time at the Cottage and the Soldiers’ Home. We propose to create a visitor friendly and easily accessible database of the Civil War graves in the cemetery. As Evan can attest, we get a lot of questions about the cemetery from visitors, especially since we refer to it in our exhibits and programs, but do not regularly give tours of the cemetery (it falls under a different jurisdiction than the Cottage).

Unfortunately, not many online resources on the cemetery that currently exist can answer these visitors’ questions. The Park Service has a brief description of the history of the site, but completely fails to mention Lincoln; this is a glaring omission in the historical background. On the Cottage website, there is an old blog post of data detailing the burials, compiled by an Ohio history class in 2004. Evan and I will use this as a starting point, and certainly are grateful to Mr. LaRue’s class for compiling the raw data. However, both this post and the NPS description are not obviously accessible, lack robust interpretation, and/or do not promote interactivity. Our resource hopefully will include these elements.

We have a few platform options for our project. First, we could create a mini-site on, which uses the WordPress CMS. Second we could create a separate site using WordPress. And lastly, we might use Omeka to build it as a database/digital collection. Regardless of format, one of the key elements of our website will be a graph charting when the burials took place during the Civil War. This graph will be combined with a timeline of important Civil War, slavery and Lincoln family milestones. From this combined presentation, visitors will appreciate the context of the burials and how in turn they affected Lincoln’s leadership, ideas, and humanity.

In addition to demonstrating general trends over the course of the Civil War, we are especially interested in is the stories of the actual soldiers buried in the cemetery. The stories of these brave men are not told in any of the current research on the cemetery. By looking at records in the Library of Congress, National Archives and other veteran databases, we hope to create profiles of at least some of the soldiers who eternally rest in the Soldiers’ Home cemetery.

As for President Lincoln’s Cottage’s role, we will obviously keep our colleagues apprised of our work, especially Erin Mast, the Executive Director, and Callie Hawkins, Associate Director for Programs. In addition, George Wellman, a volunteer who also is a resident of the Soldiers’ Home, has an extensive personal knowledge of the cemetery. We certainly will use George to help in our research, as needed. Also, the Cottage’s Facebook and Twitter platforms can help us reach our intended audience.

It is our ultimate goal that this resource will help visitors to the Cottage, local D.C. residents, Americans interested in Civil War history and in fact any “historian,” professional or amateur, with internet access to better understand the profound impact the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery had on President Abraham Lincoln.

Posing for History

Roger Fenton’s photograph with cannonballs “off” the road. (Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin, via New York Times)

Fenton’s photograph with cannonballs “on” the road. (Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin, via New York Times)

In a three-part New York Times Opinionator series, film director Errol Morris tried to solve a conundrum: a pair of photos taken at the exact same location on the same afternoon during the Crimean War show cannon balls on a road as well as off to the side. Which photo was taken first and why did the photographer (Roger Fenton) change the shot for the second? Morris interviewed roughly a dozen people for the series, and even took a trip to the Crimea to place himself in the exact location photographed. Eventually he did figure it out (I’ll let you find out the answer yourself in part 3).

At one point, while talking to Gordon Brown, a former curator of the Getty Museum, Morris says “[Susan Sontag] mentions how one of the Fenton photographs was posed or staged. That we’re always disappointed when we learn that a photograph has been posed… according to Sontag, a fake photograph is a photograph that’s been posed.”

As someone interested in the Civil War, this certainly grabbed my attention. The Civil War was the first American war that was photographed widely, and many of these images are iconic to this day. Specifically, Matthew Brady and his associate Alexander Gardner took many photos of dead Civil War soldiers, most notably in the aftermaths of the Battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. In fact, “Gardner was determined to arrive at … battlefields as soon as possible to photograph the rotting corpses of America’s fallen men. He likely knew these shocking images would receive the most attention from the public.” (source)

Taken by Alexander Gardner, this photos shows Confederate casualties in the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862.

Taken by Alexander Gardner, this photo shows Confederate casualties in the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 (courtesy LOC).

But even just the bloated corpse of a dead Confederate (and these Northern photographers almost exclusively photographed dead Confederate soldiers, Brown tells Morris) wasn’t enough. As detailed by historian William A. Frassanito, Gardner’s men altered these photos, by hand coloring some of the black and white negatives with red ink to highlight the blood of the battle, and even more extreme, “posing” the photos by using fake props like guns and sometimes moving the dead soldiers.

Gardner allegedly moved this dead Confederate sniper to the more photo "friendly" Devil's Den location (courtesy LOC)

Gardner allegedly moved this Confederate sniper from 40 yards away to this more “photogenic” location, Devil’s Den, at the Battle of Gettysburg (courtesy LOC).

Are these posed photos harmful to historians? To be sure, they do not tell exactly the “true” story of the subjects. Yet, that does not mean they are fake. That unfortunate sniper was killed in Gettysburg. Those cannonballs were fired in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. So they still demonstrate the history of their time and place. At the same time, historians using both old and new images, must be cognizant of the context of the images they use. And yes a healthy dose of skepticism might be necessary.

(This skepticism has some benefits. For example, humor site has an ongoing series “Images you won’t believe aren’t Photoshopped.” Here is part 12, with one of the photos pasted below).

Felaini and mini valbuena

Fellaini looks more interested in getting a pot of gold that Valbuena has hidden than in getting the ball. (Deadspin via

Archiving Gold: Preserving the Sochi Olympics for the Future

Last week a Washington Post article made the rounds. It documented dozens of tweets from western journalists who arrived at the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia only to find hotels that weren’t finished, toilets that didn’t flush, and all other imaginable problems.

This was just the tip of the iceberg. NBC reporter Richard Engel claimed his phone and computers were hacked (though it turned out to be due to his own security lapse and not Sochi’s internet).  Ticket sales also were suffering due to “bombs, bureaucracy and big bucks,” according to one headline*. There were fears of stray dogs getting euthanized (fortunately, as this photo gallery documents, activists are saving some of these dogs.) Ironically, temperatures at the “Winter” Olympics are reaching 60° F. And none of those address the larger overarching issue of Russia’s anti-gay policies, which prompted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to call Sochi “a very bad choice” to host the Olympics. All of these issues have inspired a brand new twitter account “Sochi Problems,” which has 343,000 followers.

Some of these “problems” are not as serious as the media have reported (e.g. dogs and hacking). Still, they do linger over the Games. Thus, I think the Washington Post page on the Olympics should be archived, including all of its articles, videos, photos and other artifacts of the Games. If these pages are not saved, then future generations might only get a sense of these Games from the sporting results, instead of understanding the larger context of Sochi 2014. However if they are saved, hopefully Olympic organizers can learn from past mistakes. Also, archiving is especially important since most newspaper articles have short online shelf lives, which threatens the permanency of the record of these problems.

Unfortunately, archiving this section is not possible now, at least not by outsiders like the Internet Archive.  That’s because the Post’s robot.text disallows crawling. Of course the Post itself could archive their own materials for the public good. Even so, there still are some challenges to archiving the page. First, it is very much a living breathing site that is constantly updated, including new articles, photos, videos and results. This is a great tool, since it shows the progress of the Games over time. However, it’s an archiving challenge, since there are many elements that would be missed if the site is only haphazardly archived. Furthermore, some of the features on the site are complex media pieces with sound and audio. So that too is also hard to archive.

Fortunately, if the technical challenges can be over come, the Library of Congress would serve as a great repository for the archive. They already have a collection of Olympic historical accounts, so this would be a natural addition. Plus, as mentioned above, newspaper articles are removed from online quickly (e.g. the article I mentioned about low ticket sales), so saving them in the Library of Congress would preserve them forever, making our knowledge of the Games stronger (if not faster and higher, too.)

*This article has already been removed from But the original AP version is still live.

Accio Fair Use

Hary Potter logoGrowing up, I was a big fan of Harry Potter. My grandmother gave me an early copy of Sorcerer’s Stone that she received from a friend who worked at Scholastic. I was hooked immediately, and over the next 10 years eagerly anticipated each book or film in the series.

While waiting, I’d go to various fan sites, including the Harry Potter Lexicon (HPL), a website dedicated to cataloging the detailed world JK Rowling created. The site listed every character, spell, and anything else mentioned in the books, and had developed one of the first comprehensive timelines of the series. (Fun fact: Harry Potter was born on July 31, 1980.) Even JK Rowling herself used it! As she wrote when bestowing HPL a “fan site award” in 2004:

This is such a great site that I have been known to sneak into an internet café while out writing and check a fact rather than go into a bookshop and buy a copy of Harry Potter (which is embarrassing). A website for the dangerously obsessive; my natural home. 1

It seemed that Steve Vander Ark, the creator of HPL, had done a great service to the Harry Potter fandom.

However, when he decided to publish the website in print form, Warner Brothers (WB), the legal copyright owners of the series, filed a lawsuit injunction in October 2007 against Vander Ark’s publisher, RDR Books, citing copyright infringement.

This was not the first time that WB had asserted its legal copyright of the Harry Potter franchise. In 2000, Harry Potter fan sites across the world, almost all of them run by children, received cease-and-desist letters from WB. One such letter, sent to the 15-year old British webmaster of read in part that the domain name might “cause consumer confusion or dilution of the intellectual property rights” of Harry Potter. The letter made it clear WB would go to court if necessary. As news spread of these letters, WB pulled back, with on VP stating “We’ve been naive… the studio’s letter is an act of miscommunication. We never intended to shut down any Web sites.”2 In the end, few fan sites were halted. The sites had a good claim for fair use using the “four factors”3: the nature of the use was referential not derivative, it was used for discussion and modifying (e.g. fanfiction), the use did not constitute widespread reproduction, and importantly they weren’t causing financial loss for WB, but instead bringing increased awareness of the brand. And besides, WB didn’t want the negative publicity of suing hundreds of children.

The RDR case was different though. Using the four factors again: the use was basically straight reproduction, the original work was not highly modified, the extent was literally the entirety of the series and and the published Lexicon would potentially harm WB financially (Rowling had always planned on writing an encyclopedia of the series herself, and thus, her lawyers argued, another encyclopedic work would diminish potential sales.)

Ironically, in the end RDR lost, but “the big winner actually was fair use,” according to copywright lawyer Jonathan Band at the time of the ruling. As Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi describe in Reclaiming Fair Use, in the ruling Judge Robert Patterson stated that the Lexicon was an example of transformativeness since it served reference, not entertainment purposes. However, he ruled in favor of WB and Rowling since the to-be-published version of the Lexicon “lost sight of [its] transformative purpose” by copying too much material verbatim.4 Several Fair Use law advocates like Band approved this decision, since in addition to establishing that reference works were transformative, it did not set a precedent that writers had exclusive access to reference works of their material.5

As someone who used HPL, I agreed that it was a transformative work. Fortunately, they were able to publish an edited “more transformative” version in 2009. So in some ways the case ended up as a win-win for both Harry Potter fans and Fair Use promoters.

Do you agree with the court (and me) that reference works like the Harry Potter Lexicon are transformative? Or do you think they’re actually derivative works?


1 This quote was originally on JK Rowling’s website, which has since been redesigned and no longer shows the fan site awards. However, the Internet Archive still has access to the older version.
2 See Anelli, Melissa, Harry, A History, New York: Pocket Books, 2008, pages 88-100 for more on the history of Harry Potter fan sites.
3 Aufderheide, Patricia and Jaszi, Peter, Reclaiming Fair Use, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011, page 158.
4 Ibid 89-90.
5 If you want to read more about the RDR case, check out its Wikipedia article, which is both highly detailed and heavily sourced.

Spiraling out of Control

Do you remember your first tweet?

Some of you in History and New Media probably do, if you only started tweeting a few weeks ago. However, for those of us who started earlier, it’s tougher. I remember when I started tweeting from my @sportzak account (March 2009) just not what I tweeted. Did I write something witty? Something historical? Something insightful? Something bland like ‘hey this is my first tweet’?

Since I’ve been reading about internet archiving this week, I thought it would be fun to find out if my first tweet is archived.

First I tried the Way Back Machine. But no dice. As Jinfang Niu points out in her overview of web archiving not all websites can be crawled, either due to the crawler limitations (dynamic web content, like streaming media, can’t be archived easily) or the sites themselves block such actions via robot exclusions. Twitter, with log-ins, passwords and privacy concerns, is not cached. (Plus everyone’s “” page looks completely different since it shows their customized feed, so I don’t even know how it’d be possible to archive the main site.)

Fortunately, it turns out that Twitter has been archiving my tweets this whole time! I found a link showing directions on how to download your twitter archive, and after I downloaded and extracted the zip file, I finally saw my initial tweet:

I think this is a perfect first tweet, as it really sums up the internet as a whole, not just twitter. As Abbie Grotke opens her review of the Library of Congress’ web archiving endeavors, the internet “is large and ever-changing and that content is added and removed continually” causing issues with selection, timing, and value when archiving sites. (Think of Niu’s example of archiving p1 and p2-a of a website.) Of course, Internet spiraling can be good: the September 11th digital archive “spiraled” from 28 submissions by January 2002, to 328 by March, 693 by May, 948 by July, and 1,624 by August thanks to the interconnectivity of the internet.

What were your first Tweets like? Post them below in the comments!

In honor of my first tweet, let’s end this post with some John Coltrane:

The Junto

A Group Blog on Early American History

Back to the Future!

Musings on history in the 21st century.

You're History

Caitlyn Sellar, History & New Media, Spring 2014

Public Historian Under Construction

AU grad student blogging about history and new media

Becoming a Public Historian

Sydney Rhodes, Public Historian

Historian Who Prefers Paper

History and New Media blogs from an old school historian

Alex Goes Digital

Online Musings of a Public Historian

Public History in the Digital Realm

By Lisa Fthenakis, a public history grad student


the ramblings of a public historian

After Analog

pondering the digital side of public history

The Blog

The latest news on and the WordPress community.

The Past and other mind puzzles...

history & new media intersections


One grad student's thoughts on digital history, new media, and the public

The Daily Post

The Art and Craft of Blogging