American Ethnography, the AAA, and the Public Domain

Recently “”: blogged a new anthropology site, “American Ethnography”: American Ethnography is a very pretty site with monthly thematic collections of articles from AAA journals. My initial response was: “wow, how happy will the AAA be to see entire articles they are selling for money on AnthroSource being reproduced on the web for free?” So I was surprised — astonished would be a better word — when Martin, the proprietor of AE, pointed out a paragraph on the AAA website’s “permissions page”: which states that:

AAA article content published before 1964 is in the public domain and may be used and copied without permission. The AAA asks only that you include a complete reference to the original publication and a link to AnthroSource.

I would actually prefer a little more specification of what “public domain” means exactly here, but its still an extremely positive step forward — well done AAA! And as for the rest of us, I we should take this opportunity to start making some of the foundational works in our discipline available as soon as possible. Not only will this enable everyone to learn about anthropology as a discipline, but it will also be interesting to see if subscriptions to AAA journals are affected. And if they are not, then perhaps we could convince AAA to make the moving wall on their content shorter than its current forty-four years…


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

5 thoughts on “American Ethnography, the AAA, and the Public Domain

  1. “Wow”:

    bq. AMERICAN Ethnography is a stranger in a 1972 Riviera, sunburst yellow banged up and dirty, raving coffee madness cruising Main Street of the quiet desert town at 15 miles an hour, hair like a sleep deprived Augustus Caesar, taupe pinstripe two-piece suit with a three button jacket and open white shirt, French cuffs and pocket square folded Presidential, argyle socks in brogue tan loafers, on the passenger seat a saddle brown croc skin flap-over briefcase, reaching down with the right hand to open it, left hand clutching the gold plated chain steering wheel, one smooth movement, grabs a pile of handbills, leans over to the rolled down passenger seat window and throws the flyers out of the car with nothing more than a “here” and a slight nod, then accelerating as papers rain down on confused bystanders in a trail of methanol fumes and wasteland dust, for a second they all freeze in place, then bending down with hands in pockets, nonchalantly trying to read without touching—spirit-duplicated notepad sheets with academic sleaze, intellectual obscenities and savage science, crude drawings of voluptuous women and demonic beasts, backmasked poems from another dimension—yes, it’s wop bop a loop a lop a lop boom bam reversed and inside out as the car makes a sharp turn onto the highway at the end of the street, screeching tires leave gravel and hit dry asphalt, the driver slowly tilts his head back, loosing himself in the souped-up rumble of the eight cylinder engine. “Don’t follow leaders!” He’s talking to himself. “Watch your parking meters!”

  2. Good question about public domain! You would think the copyright would revert to the author, so that if Sahlins published part of Stone Age Economics in AE (I’m making this up, I don’t have my copy here) that the copyright for his essay goes back to him.

    I suppose it would depend on the agreements AE used for authors at that time, but unless all rights were permanently given to AES, they should be with the authors.

    Anyone know more about this?


  3. Rex,
    When you write “it will also be interesting to see if subscriptions to AAA journals are affected,” I assume that you mean affected in a __negative__ way. However, it could also be that this affects subscriptions to AAA journals in a __positive way,__ right? That could, after all, be the effect of enabling, like you write, “everyone to learn about anthropology as a discipline.” And like I noted earlier (on AAA wouldn’t sue anybody for trying to make them look interesting and attractive, would they? (I should, of course, say “__even more__
    interesting and attractive” …)

    My simple thought was that it would be nice for everyone, perhaps particularly in these times, that more people had access to and interest in material about cultural relativism. Using those texts on American Ethnography, I figured, would be good for anthropologists, and for the AAA … nay the world. 🙂

    As for “a little more specification of what ‘public domain’ means” I am hoping that public domain is not a term with restrictions on it! As in “you can use it as you please, but only if you are going to use it in a pamphlet which you will not distribute.” I was of the impression that public domain is public domain, period, but perhaps that is just my naive and wishful thinking.

  4. Martin writes: “AAA wouldn’t sue anybody for trying to make them look interesting and attractive, would they?”

    That’s a very kind thing to think about AAA 🙂

    IANAL, but in the US ‘public domain’ is the legal status things have when they have no copyright holder (when the copyright expires, for instance). But what they appear to be doing is licensing pre-1964 work for further use. But what is the nature of that use? Could we sell AAA content? Must derivative works (i.e. JSTOR PDFs) be released under a similar license? I wish they had used a CC license or something. Although I doubt it will come to this, posting that sort of vague language is the sort of thing that opens the door to controversy.

    Ken’s point is also an interesting one – in many ways this is a sort of benevolent paternalism that benefits the public but which ultimately continues to give AAA power over content that others (i.e. authors) have actually written.

  5. Talking about access: I can’t access anything on AnthroSource anymore. Sure, they recognize my log-in, etc., but when I click the pdf hyperlink it tells me that I don’t have access to that article and should buy access.

    Numerous emails to the people-in-charge has gotten me nowhere.

    Is anyone else having this problem? Should we unite?

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