OK, I have a fluffy, not at all researched, theory/hunch about the nature of archiving. Primarily this is a theory regarding media in the age of mechanical and digital reproduction, but it could also be applied to most archival objects. I’m also sure that someone somewhere has made this argument – or probably a better, more nuanced argument on these lines – but nevertheless, here goes:
Generally speaking, the fewer authors a thing has, the easier it is to archive. The more authors a thing has, the more complicated it is to archive.
By ‘authors’ I don’t necessarily mean auteurs in the Truffaut sense. I generally mean creators with knobs on – people who produce objects that are deemed to have an authority over those objects. So, in the world of film I would probably cite the creators who have copyright over their film: the director(s), producer(s), music director(s) and, in some cases, the top-billed actor(s). However, the word author doesn’t necessarily mean just the person(s) who own the copyright or the intellectual property rights to a media object, but I’ll get on to that in a bit.
I came to this conclusion after reading a work in progress by a cohort of mine who is currently penning a thesis on authorship as it relates to branding using case studies from film, television and video games. The piece I read was an extract on the video games section, in which the argument was made that it was difficult to apply authorship to video game branding because the branding of video games often rejects the idea of an omniscient auteur or even showrunner/key creator in favour of pushing the idea of teamwork and collaboration. Branding, of course, is a separate issue to archiving, but it is also true that video game production is such a complicated thing involving many companies and many individuals that it is difficult to know what bit of a game to archive and how.
Now, as some media archivists will know, the archiving of video games is not in the healthiest shape. There has always been a lag when it comes to archiving media: films began circulating in the 1890s, but there wasn’t any concerted international effort to archive them until the mid-1930s; television began in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the National Film Archive expanded its remit to include television; websites are updated frequently without any thought of preserving their earlier incarnations. Now, the need to archive games – because video/digital gaming is a hugely popular pastime that has had a massive impact on popular culture since its introduction in the 1970s – is recognised by many, but the archive community is still working out the best way to do so. If you’re interested in the archiving of games, you should familiarise yourself with Jason Scott, who’s probably the most prominent pioneer of archiving games and other new technologies.
Why do authors count? Well, primarily because of copyright, though that is a boring excuse, I know. The fewer people you need permission from the sooner you can archive. But this is not the only reason. Authors are not necessarily the same people as owners. For instance, video games will be owned by their developers – i.e. the companies, not the individual creators. Also, copyright is not the same as intellectual property. You can own a reel of film, a DVD or CD-ROM and it is yours, but that does not give you the right to copy, share or otherwise distribute that thing. So, items with single authors are easy, because the answer to the question ‘hey, can I do [X] with that thing you made’ is yes or no. More than one author and the answer could be ‘I dunno, see what that other guy says.’
Media created collaboratively can get very complicated because individuals may not know whether they have any authority over the media they helped create. When the authority is dispersed over entire companies of employees and contractors, it can be hard to know who has executive authority over the destiny of the thing. Of course, this is where ideas like fair use and due diligence come into play: if one has done their due diligence and found no authority over the thing they have found, then they can proceed with using that thing because that’s only fair. However, in practice declaring something as an orphan and thus free to archive is a scary prospect. Who knows, perhaps someone’s great aunt has inherited the estate of the person who created just one part of the thing you want to acquire, preserve, copy and maybe even share because you are an archivist and that’s what you do? Perhaps that great aunt has no idea if that person waived his right to that part of the thing. And THEN you have a whole heap of works-in-progress, personal ideas and sketches, documentation, correspondence… Who authored that? Does it matter? If the works were created by many people but owned by only a few people, how do you account for that?
So, it is (relatively) easy to archive books (though, naturally, it is not easy to archive anything for many reasons beside intellectual property, copyright and general ownership). In fact, it is so easy that in the UK any author of a published book is obliged to deposit it in the British Library, whose job it is to store that book and make it accessible. But this does not happen with films, TV programmes, games… When you want to archive these pieces of media, you need to know who to ask.