Free Culture Clash

Libraries think it makes sense to digitize theses and dissertations and have them web-searchable rather than have to rely on UMI publishing them. Having a few print copies on the shelf means hardly anyone will find that scholarship, and why would anyone go to the trouble to write all that if they don’t want it read?

Well, to get a credential, for one, and for another, to prepare for a life that involves publishing books – books that are a marketable commodity, not given away for free.

Several universities have fallen afoul of graduate students who fear their first book – the one that gets them tenure – will be unpublishable if the dissertation its based on is open access. The University of Iowa is now finding itself in the middle of an unanticipated firestorm when they decided deposited electronic theses would be open access and, eventually, print theses would be, too. According to the Chron:

At the center of the conflict is a routine form that students and their faculty advisers sign for depositing students’ theses with the Graduate College. Language added to the form this semester says that the University of Iowa Library will scan hard-copy theses and “make them open-access documents,” which it defines as freely available over the Internet and retrievable “via search engines such as Google.” It is not clear who authorized that clause.

Students can request to have Internet publishing delayed for two years, the form states, but it adds that the default assumption is that students want their theses disseminated online. All graduate students must sign the form, due in early April, in order to graduate.

To some this is a Trojan horse – a university taking control of students’ intellectual property without discussion; for others it’s outright theft. For many students in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop it’s an inexplicable lapse of common sense. After all, these are students who are in school to learn how to write publishable work. They see this action as a high-handed move to take away their creative work and make it unpublishable.

The language in the “first deposit checklist” states the library plans to make electronic deposits open access and to digitize print ones, rather than have them published via UMI. The library has tried to clarify its role in this issue, as reported in EarthGoat.

But clearly, there are some very sticky issues here that open access supporters (including many critics of this new policy) need to untangle.

Addendum: Peter Suber has, as usual, words of wisdom. The only disagreement I would have with him is that two years’ embargo is okay for literary works. It takes a year, at a minimum, to publish a book the traditional way, and trade publishers would not be happy with any open access that wasn’t under their control, ever. Backlist is gold to them, and a lot of books retain their market value even when they’re years old. (I do find myself wondering whether UMI publication has ever interfered with signing a contract for an MFA-originated project – but that’s a rabbit hole we don’t need to go down.)

UPDATE: The university (not surprisingly) said whoops and the language on the policy was changed (and that link will no longer work). Chances are, this could have been resolved in-house without any friction, but because there was a deadline involved, the issue didn’t seem resolvable quickly, and word spread across the internet much faster, it became a bit of a public relations disaster. If nothing else, it suggest rolling out any new open access initiative needs to be an opportunity to discuss what open access is all about.

Welcome to the Public Domain

Happy new year! Here are some authors whose works are back in the public domain: J. M. Barrie, Jean de Brunhoff, H. P. Lovecraft, Maurice Ravel, and Edith Wharton. (If you live in Canada, you get even more.)

Thanks to John Mark Ockerbloom and to BoingBoing for the reminder that with every new year, some works become public. At least until the next copyright extension law is passed.

photo courtesy of tilaneseven

Free As In Free Speech?

The American Library profession is at a crossroads: will our future be marked by the predominance of free and open source integrated library systems and open access journal publishing, or will we continue to use proprietary software and tolerate barriers to scholarly information? Does it matter?

The ethical and philosophical implications of open source and open access were debated at the North American Computing and Philosophy Conference in Chicago this past July. Keynote speakers included Richard Stallman on open source free software, and Peter Suber on the open access movement.

Richard Stallman, I found out, is something of a celebrity in the computer science world. He is founder of the GNU Project and president of the Free Software Foundation. Stallman has a particular conception of free software that he promotes and defends with great verve. Stallman believes the terminological distinction between free software and open source software is important. Free software to Stallman means that the user has the “freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes.” Stallman believes these freedoms are not only about price, but about promoting sharing and cooperation. One of Stallman’s slogans is “free as in free speech, not free beer.”

The Library community, I’ve noticed (here, here, and here), tends to use the phrase open source. (Casey Bisson uses them both in “Free at Last” a recent American Libraries column only accessible to… ahem.) Systems librarians have long been fed up with the lack of development of proprietary OPACs and are now experimenting with open source models.

“Open source” originated at a strategy session in 1998 in which it was decided to “dump the moralizing and confrontational attitude that had been associated with “free software” in the past and sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic, business-case grounds.”

As a marketing strategy, this maneuver seems to have worked. Open source software is all over the place, and mainly for pragmatic reasons–the open development process is producing better software. And besides a few licensing details, open source software and free software are very similar and share the same goals. So does it matter what it’s called?

In their fascinating new book, Decoding Liberation, Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter sidestep the issue by using “free and open source software.” Chopra and Dexter explore and expand on the ethical issues raised by Stallman. They raise the interesting points that as a scientific discipline, computer science requires code to be publicly inspectable, and that in a world increasingly infused with code, “personal and social freedoms become the freedoms granted or restricted by software.”

(Chopra and Dexter are taking some flak over publishing their book with Routledge which is listing it at $95.00 with an eye toward the suckers who buy anything no matter how much it costs enabling publishers to make hefty profits and restrict knowledge from people the academic library market. Chopra and Dexter reveal why they went with Routledge and an interesting discussion is emerging on the differences between copyright in book publishing and copyright in software over at their blog.)

It’s time for the library community to start looking not only at the practical aspects of free and open source software but at the ethical issues as well. For Stallman, the development of free software is an ethical imperative. Chopra and Dexter raise issues of academic freedom and social responsibility. One thing I realized at the conference was how similar philosophically the library values of free speech and the hacker ethic of free software really are. What should be the future of academic libraries? More collaboration with programmers and more free and open source software for libraries which result in better services for users. Put that together with open access and we’ve got a vision that includes making scholarly information accessible to more people. If we’re not for that, what are we for?

Don’t Click on that Article!

The University of Kansas is taking a get-tough approach to copyright.

Violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is against the law. If you are caught downloading copyrighted material, you will lose your ResNet privileges forever. No second notices, no excuses, no refunds. One violation and your ResNet internet access is gone for as long as you reside on campus.

So don’t use those full-text library databases. Those articles are copyrighted. Sure, they’re licensed for the campus, but according to this policy, you will lose your network privileges forever. No excuses! Even though it’s not a violation of the law.

According to Ars Technica, quoting the Lawrence Journal-World, the new policy is a result of receiving increasing numbers of takedown notices from the RIAA. It’s kind of hard to educate students about copyright when the institution’s own tech folks get it so wrong. And it’s kind of hard to take violations seriously when zero tolerance means zero respect for sharing legally and zero understanding of fair use.

Till Death Do Us Part – And Then Some

Mark Helprin has a truly odd commentary in the Times today – complaining that his copyrights will be stripped from his heirs seventy years after he trips the light fantastic. Other property can’t be stolen like this. He faults the framers for mistakenly believing ideas will be served if rights are held for a limited time (though he gives them credit for allowing Congress to extend them indefinitely). He likens the public domain to “nationalization” and unfair seizure of property.Shouldn’t his right to own his words persist lo unto to ages?

Just be sure to leave a forwarding address, Mark. Otherwise it’s gonna be hard to keep your deathless prose available to readers.

For contrast, see Jonathan Lethem’s approach, previously discussed here.

Or just for kicks, check out this pastiche on copyright that uses clips from a company that has exploited our shared cultural heritage, then slapped our hands for wanting it back.