I’ve always had to worry a bit about the law when it comes to my work. I use material – spoken voice recordings – contributed by other people which can lead to all sorts of ownership and copyright issues. Of course, I understand that I cannot go making recordings of people and use them however I want without their permission, so I think quite a lot about how best to approach this issue.

One thing is for sure and that is that nothing ruins spontaneous and engaged participation as quickly and thoroughly as a lengthy dose of legalese (sorry, lawyers!). It is always a challenge to get people to participate in my projects at all and I found that slapping them with an additional step of reading and signing some godawful legal agreement was pretty much a killer. So I’ve never really done this, but have at the same time wanted to be very clear with my participants how their recordings could be used as well as provide a modicum of legal protection for unanticipated but possible future legal issues.

My primary methods thus far have been:

- for smartphone apps, use a simple popup dialogue that participants use to opt-in before making a recording
– for interviews and in-person BYOV events, I have people read a short statement out loud saying that I can use the recordings and I record that before starting the interview.

I try to avoid paper and signatures as they always instantly formalize things which is not what I’m looking to do in my work. These approaches have worked pretty well in the past and I think the fact that I am not getting rich off of anything helps dissuade people from suing me as well!

But all this applies when I am explicitly collecting voices directly from the source/mouth rather than collecting from material that was recorded in the past for other purposes. So needless to say, I am embarking on a new battle of legal discovery here at Smithsonian.

It seems as though most researchers who want access to the SI audio archives do not want the actual voices. They want the words and they want the meaning and they want the historical context, but they don’t want/need the voices themselves in recorded form. So when I ask the question about what I am allowed to do with the actual voice recordings and how I am allowed to use them in my own work, all of a sudden no one seems to really know the answer.

The Smithsonian is a public institution supported by the government, but this does not mean that the archives are freely accessible to be used for any purpose by anyone. I was hoping my SARF credentials would give me some sort of magic key to be able to use anything I wanted as I pleased, but not surprisingly, this is definitely not true. So in order to avoid wasting lots of time listening to material that I am not ultimately allowed to make use of and more importantly to avoid falling in love with material I can’t use(!), my first task, it seems, is to attempt to figure out how to determine for sure what is open for my use and what is not. This seems like a simple question, but given the long period over which these recordings have been collected and the diverse number of groups/people who have done the collecting, this is not going to be an easy task.

That’s about all of this I can handle for now, but I have more meetings set up next week that may or may not shed more light on this issue. Will report back!


PS – my dad is a (non-practicing) lawyer as are some of my good friends! I swear I am not anti-lawyer so much as feeling certain parts of the legal system could use an overhaul.

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