Chill Out

Shelly Batts, a PhD candidate in neuroscience, was taken aback when she wrote about a science article she had read and reproduced an image from it – then got a scary take-down order. The blogosphere reacted, the publisher retracted, and things have calmed down. The fair use issue is not resolved (the publisher said they would grant permission, not that it was okay to post an image to a blog without their permission) but at least Batts won’t be sued.

The storm that erupted is interesting, though. When a science publisher acts like the RIAA, people get angry. A lot of people. They argue the publisher is stifling criticism of ideas, and that this is one more reason to support open access. That last bit is a bit tricky: open access doesn’t mean no copyright, so the same laws apply. I guess the argument is that, without the financial incentive to protect your exclusivity, nobody would sic their lawyers on other people for reproducing the information.

But one thing is clear. Chilling effects are harder to pull off when people share information and generate some heat.

Turn it Off

Kudos to the bloggers at ACRL! I wasn’t in Baltimore but just reading the blog got a good sense of the usual intellectual overload. Wow!

Meanhwile . . . high School students have sued the plagiarism-detection giant, Turnitin, for … well, not plagiarism, but something that’s actually a criminal offense. Copyright violation.

According to the Washington Post story

“All of these kids are essentially straight-A students, and they have no interest in plagiarizing,” said Robert A. Vanderhye, a McLean attorney representing the students pro bono. “The problem with [Turnitin] is the archiving of the documents. They are violating a right these students have to be in control of their own property.” . . .

“You can’t take a person’s work and run it through a computer and make an honest person out of them,” Wade [one of the plaintiff’s parents ] said. “My son’s major objection is that he does not cheat, and this assumes he does. This case is not about money, and we don’t expect to get that.”

Andrew Beckerman-Rodau, co-director of the intellectual property law program at Suffolk University Law School, said that although the law regarding fair use is subject to interpretation, he thinks the students have a good case.

“Typically, if you quote something for education purposes, scholarship or news reports, that’s considered fair use,” Beckerman-Rodau said. “But it seems like Turnitin is a commercial use. They turn around and sell this service, and it’s expensive. And the service only works because they get these papers.”

Reminds me of the systems being designed to locate copyright violations by massively copying people’s Webpages. Copyright violation is okay so long as it catches plagiarists and copyright violators? That’s like saying breaking and entering a whole neighborhood of houses is okay so long as you’re looking for goods stolen while breaking and entering. Or to to scare people who might consider breaking and entering. That’ll learn you!

I know a lot of libraries are involved in using Turnitin at their institutions to help educate students about plagiarism (or, at least, put the frighteners on). I’ve seen pedagogical arguments made about Turnitin, both pro and con. But what does it teach students about the sanctity of intellectual property (if there is such a thing) to catch theft by systematically taking their words? Isn’t that a mixed message at best?


Here’s an interesting development. Wouldn’t it be great if we weren’t devoting so much time and energy to multiple licenses? Wouldn’t it be neat to have a common understanding of what’s acceptable (including things like interlibrary loan and e-reserves) when acquiring e-content for our libraries? Aren’t scholarly publishers and libraries potential allies? Can’t we all just get along?

Maybe so. Check out the Shared E-Resource Understanding project. And feel free to comment on the document in development. This is exciting!

Who Owns Conference Presentations?

Here’s a nice little brouhaha. It seems that the American Political Science Association has appropriated the copyright of papers presented at its annual conference as a condition of presenting. An APSA conference presenter recently found one of her papers for sale on a for-profit site called AllAcademic Inc. and wrote about it in outrage at the blog Crooked Timber. More outrage by others followed in the comments to her post. In response to the comments, the executive director of the APSA wrote in and said the papers were posted to AllAcademic Inc. by mistake and that they would be taken down. He continued to assert copyright, however, and maintained that the papers would be accessible for free in an open access archive. From the point of view of distribution, this seems like a good outcome, except some profs are still miffed at the claim that they have surrendered copyright as a condition of presenting at the conference. Perhaps rightfully so.

Who should own copyright to this work and what should they do with it? I heard Kenneth Crewes speak on copyright recently, and one of the most provocative things he said was that a very good case could be made that the scholarly work that professors do is really work for hire, and therfore their college or university could make a strong claim to owning the copyright. He backed off immediately, saying most university administrators would be crazy to push this, as it would enrage the professoriate, roil the whole system, and in fact make a lot more work for them. And yet, wouldn’t it be interesting…

(Note to self: look into ALA’s policy on conference presentations and go back and read the emails about the copyright of this blog.)

Fair Criticism

A bill has been introduced in Congress to offer more latitude to users of digital media by extending fair use to areas that were made murky when the DMCA went into effect. According to The Wired Campus blog

The bill (HR 1201), the Freedom and Innovation Revitalizing U.S. Entrepreneurship Act of 2007, or Fair Use Act, would amend the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to allow librarians, archivists, and others to bypass copyright protections on digital content in certain circumstances. Among the supporters of the legislation are the American Library Association and the American Association of Law Libraries.

I’m glad to see any effort to get some balance back. Congress has started posting copyright notices on podcasts of hearings (huh?) and when law professor Wendy Seltzer posted on YouTube the the snippet of the Superbowl broadcast that makes the ridiculous claim that you are forbidden to describe the game without their permission because they own the copyright, she got a take down notice. Careful next time you’re talking about a football play you saw on TV or you might get sacked! And don’t even tell anyone you can’t tell anyone because they own the exclusive rights to that statement, too!

One thing the bill includes is that excerpts of digital media, protected by DRM, could be used fairly for criticism, comment, news reporting, scholarship, or research. You’d be protected if you circumvented the technological shrink wrap for these purposes. It doesn’t say you could post it to YouTube, but it’s a step in the right direction. Surely society should be able to view a copy of an absurdity like that pseudo-copyright claim in order to criticize and comment on it?

Speaking of YouTube, Walt Crawford reflected on on a previous post I made here about the urge to monetize content having the paradoxical effect of making content unavailable. I agree that “I just wanna have fun” isn’t a fifth factor of the four factor test. I was really just saying I wish big media would recognize the value of loosening up a little. The fact is, if you post a thirty-second clip of The Daily Show to YouTube, you will get a take-down notice and it will be removed whether or not it’s fair use.

Books don’t disappear into the ether like digital media. They don’t come with locks. It’s easier to exercise fair use with traditional media. I used to show students Colbert’s hilarious take on Wikipedia via YouTube until it vanished. It’s not on the Comedy Central website, and since I didn’t make a copy of the YouTube clip I can’t use it, even if it’s fair use. I suppose I could go to a lot of trouble to buy a copy, if Viacom is willing to sell me one. But dang it, that just seems unfair.