I’ll start with a story. This project began with the very broad objective of constructing a recyclable content management interface with OHMS incorporation, to be reused at a later stage in my dissertation project. I stumbled into the Finally Got the News content I’ve incorporated in this iteration of the build entirely by chance, but I was drawn into the material by a story.
In the early 2000s, my advisor—a labor and gender historian—was researching a project on masculinity in the American automotive past at the Reuther Library when one of the archivists handed her a VHS copy of Finally Got the News. The archive had been given a stack of these VHS tapes, to be distributed to anyone interested in Michigan’s labor past. This was the revolutionary ethic of film activism that drove the creation of this project in the 1970s, and that ethic had been kept alive by efforts of this sort for decades. Today, the internet helps to keep this activism alive, with the full length film hosted on Youtube for anyone to watch and download and share.
At MSU, our Special Collections Library has the privilege of housing some of the raw audio material that went into the making of this documentary. Unfortunately, due to reasons both practical and political, this raw audio is extremely difficult to access within any framework that illuminates its core revolutionary context. This project, then, has become an effort to make that context visible.
This week, I had the opportunity to talk about the particular irrelevance of traditional copyright law to material of this sort with an exceptionally receptive and helpful audience at the MSU Digital Humanities’ LOCUS lighting talk series, ”Access in a Digital Environment.” What follows is a brief summary of that presentation.
Exploring the copyright of this film is complicated from the beginning by the film’s own legally inaccurate attribution of copyright to Black Star Productions. Although the filmmakers clearly intended to cede ownership of the film to this organization, in strictly legal terms Black Star Productions has never existed. According to the film’s current distribution house, Icarus Films, this leaves the copyright in the hands of those individual filmmakers listed on the title screen.
Black Star Productions was founded by John Watson—a member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers’ Central Committee—in 1970 as one element in the League’s broader media strategy.
As Kenneth Cockrell—another Central Committee member—explains above, the League’s media strategy was predicated on direct revolutionary action. The South End referenced above was founded in 1967 as the student paper of Wayne State University. In seizing control of the operations of this paper, John Watson unambiguously illustrated his own lack of interest in the legal rubrics of U.S. publishing. Copyright was irrelevant to the objectives of the movement. Placing these movement materials under preservation copyright restrictions today violates the revolutionary principles that guided their creation.
The current digital corpus of MSU’s Finally Got the News audio collection lives a fragmented life, cut apart into catalog references to locally hosted files with complicated and physically prohibitive barriers to access. Not only are these clips difficult to access, they are divorced from the historical significance of their construction. A multimodal media rich gallery environment will restore the revolutionary context to these clips, returning them to useful service as historical political social justice objects. The tangled frantic fractured nature of these materials is ontological, with their basic material substance drawn from conflicts that a clean well cataloged list of audio files could never represent. The historical relationships that brought the moments recorded on these reels to being are embedded in the corpus, not the clips.