Tag Archive for intellectual property

The Visible College

After having spent the last five weeks blogging about about algorithmic culture, I figured both you and I deserved a change of pace.  I’d like to share some new research of mine that was just published in a free, Open Access periodical called The International Journal of Communication

My piece is called “The Visible College.”  It addresses the many ways in which the form of scholarly publications — especially that of journal articles — obscures the density of the collaboration typical of academic authorship in the humanities.  Here’s the first line: “Authorship may have died at the hands of a French philosopher drunk on Balzac, but it returned a few months later, by accident, when an American social psychologist turned people’s attention skyward.”  Intrigued?

My essay appears as part of a featured section on the politics of academic labor in the discipline of communication.  The forum is edited by my good friend and colleague, Jonathan Sterne.  His introductory essay is a must-read for anyone in the field — and, for that matter, anyone who receives a paycheck for performing academic labor.  (Well, maybe not my colleagues in the Business School….)  Indeed it’s a wonderful, programmatic piece outlining how people in universities can make substantive change there, both individually and collectively.  The section includes contributions from: Thomas A. Discenna; Toby Miller; Michael Griffin; Victor Pickard; Carol Stabile; Fernando P. Delgado; Amy Pason; Kathleen F. McConnell; Sarah Banet-Weiser and Alexandra Juhasz; Ira Wagman and Michael Z. Newman; Mark Hayward; Jayson Harsin; Kembrew McLeod; Joel Saxe; Michelle Rodino-Colocino; and two anonymous authors.  Most of the essays are on the short side, so you can enjoy the forum in tasty, snack-sized chunks.

My own piece presented me with a paradox.  Here I was, writing about how academic journal articles do a lousy job of representing all the labor that goes into them — in the form of an academic journal article!  (At least it’s a Creative Commons-licensed, Open Access one.)  Needless to say, I couldn’t leave it at that.  I decided to create a dossier of materials relating to the production of the essay, which I’ve archived on another of my websites, The Differences and Repetitions Wiki (D&RW).  The dossier includes all of my email exchanges with Jonathan Sterne, along with several early drafts of the piece.  It’s astonishing to see just how much “The Visible College” changed as a result of my dialogue with Jonathan.  It’s also astonishing to see, then, just how much of the story of academic production gets left out of that slim sliver of “thank-yous” we call the acknowledgments.

“The Visible College Dossier” is still a fairly crude instrument, admittedly.  It’s an experiment — one among several others hosted on D&RW in which I try to tinker with the form and content of scholarly writing.  I’d welcome your feedback on this or any other of my experiments, not to mention “The Visible College.”

Enjoy — and happy Halloween!  Speaking of which, if you’re looking for something book related and Halloween-y, check out my blog post from a few years ago on the topic of anthropodermic bibliopegy.

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Ambivalently Scribd

You may remember back in March my announcing that The Late Age of Print was available on the document sharing site, Scribd. I was excited to see it there for many reasons, chief among them the Creative Commons license I’d negotiated with my publisher, Columbia University Press, which provides for the free circulation and transformation of the electronic edition of Late Age. The book’s presence on Scribd was, for me, evidence of the CC license really working. I was also excited by Scribd’s mobile features, which meant, at least in theory, that the e-book version of Late Age might enjoy some uptake on one or more of the popular e-reading systems I often write about here.

Lately, though, I’m beginning to feel less comfortable with the book’s presence there. Scribd has grown and transformed considerably since March, adding all sorts of features to make the site more sticky — things like commenting, social networking, an improved interface, and more. These I like, but there’s one new feature I’m not feeling: ads by Google. Here’s a screenshot from today, showing what The Late Age of Print looks like on Scribd.

Screenshot of Late Age on Scribd

Note the ad in the bottom-right portion of the screen for a book called, Aim High! 101 Tips for Teens, available on Amazon.com. (Clearly, somebody at Google/Scribd needs to work on their cross-promotions.) You can subscribe to an ad-free version of Scribd for $2.99/month or $29.99/year.

Now, I’m not one of those people who believes that all advertising is evil. Some advertising I find quite helpful. Moreover, on feature-rich sites like Scribd (and in newspapers and magazines, on TV, etc.), it’s what subsidizes the cost of my own and others’ “free” experience.

Here’s the problem, though. The Creative Commons license under which the e-edition of Late Age was issued says this:

This PDF is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License, available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ or by mail from Creative Commons, 171 Second St., Suite 300, San Francisco, CA 94105 U.S.A.

“Noncommercial” as defined in this license specifically excludes any sale of this work or any portion thereof for money, even if the sale does not result in a profit by the seller or if the sale is by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit or NGO.

I’m pretty sure the presence of advertising on Scribd violates the terms of the license, albeit in an indirect way. It’s not like Late Age is being sold there for money. However, it does provide a context or occasion for the selling of audience attention to advertisers, as well as the selling of an ad-free experience to potential readers. Either way, it would seem as though the book has become a prompt for commercial transactions.

As of today, the site has recorded close to 2,000 “reads” of Late Age (whatever that means), which would indicate that Scribd has managed to reach a small yet significant group of people by piggybacking on my book.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to do about this.

In software terms I’ve always considered the e-edition of Late Age to be more like shareware than freeware. That is, my publisher and I are comfortable with some folks free-riding provided that others — hopefully many others — go on to purchase the printed edition of the book. The e-edition is not, in other words, a total freebie. Columbia has invested significant time, money, and energy in producing the book, and if nothing else the Press deserves to recoup its investment. Me? I’m more interested in seeing the arguments and ideas spread, but not at the cost of Columbia losing money on the project.

In any case, the situation with advertising on Scribd raises all sorts of vexing questions about what counts as a “commercial” or “non-commercial” use of a book in the late age of print. This became clear to me after finishing Chris Kelty’s Two Bits: The Cultural Politics of Free Software (Duke U.P., 2008). Kelty discusses how changes in technology, law, and structures of power and authority have created a host of issues for people in and beyond the world of software to work through: can free software still be free if it’s built on top of commercial applications, even in part? can collectively-produced software be copyrighted, and if so, by whom? should a single person profit from the sale of software that others have helped to create? and so on.

Analogously, can the use of an e-book to lure eyeballs, and thus ad dollars, be considered “non-commercial?” What about using the volume to market an ad-free experience? More broadly, how do you define the scope of “non-commercial” once book content begins to migrate across diverse digital platforms? I don’t have good answers to any of these questions, although to the first two I intuitively want to say, “no.” Then again, I’m pretty sure we’re dealing with an issue that’s never presented itself in quite this way before, at least in the book world. Consequently, I’ll refrain from making any snap-judgments.

I will say, though, that I recently ported one of my wiki projects, Differences and Repetitions, from Wikidot to its own independent site after Wikidot became inundated with advertising. In general I’m not a fan of my work being used to sell lots of other, unrelated stuff, especially when there are more traditionally non-commercial options available for getting the work out.

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Academic Publishing Roundup — Communication Edition

Wow! I’m happy to report that my home discipline, communication, is finally making some strides in terms of bringing its book and journal publishing policies into the 21st century.

Last week, the International Communication Association (ICA), in Conjunction with American University’s Center for Social Media, released its Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Scholarly Research in Communication. The Society for Cinema and Media Studies devised a similar statement of best practices way back in 1993 (it updated the document in 2009), so needless to say I’m pleased to see ICA catching up at long last.

These types of policy statements are vitally important for media and communication scholars, and indeed for scholars more generally. As more and more of our work engages words, sounds, images, and other artifacts drawn from the popular media, we need to be reasonably assured that we can criticize and, where necessary, reproduce content protected by copyright, trademark, and other forms of intellectual property law. That’s exactly what these best practices statements do, in part by identifying a “community of practice” and carefully defining its — in this case, scholarly — customs. But it’s not only about “show and tell.” Reproducing copyrighted content in academic work is important to the scholarly process. How else would reviewers, other scholars, and anyone else who may happen to read our work assess the validity of our claims?

Academics routinely — and often unnecessarily, I might add — self-censor our work, for instance by opting to exclude images we’re analyzing for fear we’ll get sued by some deep-pocketed media giant. Heck, I’ve even done it myself. And that’s why I’m such a champion of these best practices statements. They may not give us carte blanche to use intellectual properties in our work however we may see fit. They do give us a useful set of guidelines for making informed judgments about how best to proceed in these matters, though, plus they underscore how our own practices are in solidarity with others.

The other bit of good news is that Boston College’s Charles (Chuck) E. Morris III has drafted a resolution calling on the National Communication Association (NCA) to revise its fees for licensing NCA-copyrighted material. In a preamble to the document, Chuck writes:

The resolution seeks to regulate the prohibitively expense copyright fees charged by Taylor & Francis [publisher of NCA journals] in conjunction with NCA. Particularly alarming is that while for more than a decade NCA Executive Directors, who contractually have the prerogative to waive or reduce fees, intervened to make reprinted NCA journal materials affordable for high quality anthologies/readers of pedagogical and scholarly value, the current NCA Executive Director, Nancy Kidd, has prioritized profit and is allowing a dramatically higher fee.

Basically, NCA jacked up its reprint fees about a year ago, a move that will price smaller presses out of the business of republishing top-quality communication research. The change not only promises to whittle down the competition (leaving only behemoths like Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell, and Sage standing), but it’s also inimical to the larger cause of scholarly communication. When Chuck writes that NCA is putting profits ahead of publishing, he’s exactly right.

If you’re an NCA member, you have until Tuesday, June 29th the add your name to the document. You can do so by contacting Chuck via email: morrisch@bc.edu. And hey — if you’re not an NCA member but you believe in the spirit of the resolution, why not go ahead drop Chuck a line anyway? I don’t know if he can add your name to the formal list of signatories, but it can’t hurt for him to be able to attest to support coming from beyond NCA.

Now, if only we could get NCA to adopt a best practices for fair use statement of its own. It’s an embarrassment, frankly, for the oldest and largest professional association for communication scholars in the United States to lag so far behind its peers.

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Scholarly Journal Publishing

My latest essay, “Acknowledged Goods: Cultural Studies and the Politics of Academic Journal Publishing,” is now out in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7(1) (March 2010), pp. 3-25.  In my opinion, it’s probably the single most important journal essay I’ve published to date.  Here’s the abstract:

This essay explores the changing context of academic journal publishing and cultural studies’ envelopment within it. It does so by exploring five major trends affecting scholarly communication today: alienation, proliferation, consolidation, pricing, and digitization. More specifically, it investigates how recent changes in the political economy of academic journal publishing have impinged on cultural studies’ capacity to transmit the knowledge it produces, thereby dampening the field’s political potential. It also reflects on how cultural studies’ alienation from the conditions of its production has resulted in the field’s growing involvement with interests that are at odds with its political proclivities.

Keywords: Cultural Studies; Journal Publishing; Copyright; Open Access; Scholarly Communication

I’m fortunate to have already had the published essay reviewed by Ben Myers and Desiree Rowe, who podcast over at The Critical Lede. You can listen to their thoughtful commentary on “Acknowledged Goods” by clicking here — and be sure to check out their other podcasts while you’re at it!

Since I’m on the topic of the politics of academic knowledge, I’d be remiss not to mention Siva Vaidhyanathan’s amazing piece from the 2009 NEA Almanac of Higher Education, which recently came to my attention courtesy of Michael Zimmer.  It’s called “The Googlization of Universities.”  I found Siva’s s discussion of bibliometrics — the measurement of bibliographic citations and journal impact — to be particularly intriguing.  I wasn’t aware that Google’s PageRank system essentially took its cue from that particular corner of the mathematical universe.  The piece also got me thinking more about the idea of “algorithmic culture,” which I’ve blogged about here from time to time and that I hope to expand upon in an essay.

Please shoot me an email if you’d like a copy of “Acknowledged Goods.”  Of course, I’d be welcome any feedback you may have about the piece, either here or elsewhere.

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Pirate Pedagogy

On February 10, 2010, a German court began what may well be the start of the book industry equivalent of the dismantling of Napster.

Earlier that month, six global publishing firms — John Wiley & Sons, McGraw-Hill, Macmillan, Reed Elsevier, Cengage Learning, and Pearson — filed suit against RapidShare, seeking an injunction against and damages from the file-sharing service for having violated the publishers’ copyrights.  At the center of the suit were 148 e-books that the publishers alleged had been uploaded to the site and subsequently distributed without compensation to the rights holders.  RapidShare, they claimed, had become a pirate vessel teeming with all sorts of illegal e-book booty.

The question I want to raise here is this: does it make sense at this particular juncture for book publishing to go the way of the music industry in chasing down websites that facilitate digital piracy?

I began pondering this question last week as I drove from Indiana to the University of Illinois, where I delivered a lecture at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.  The extended car travel gave me the chance to listen to the audiobook of Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price, which I’d downloaded gratis shortly after the book’s release last July.

I was deeply intrigued by Anderson’s discussion of Microsoft’s anti-piracy strategy in China, where the illegal trade in the company’s products reportedly runs rampant.  In the 1990s, Microsoft took a hard line against Chines software pirates — publicly, at least.  Behind the scenes, however, company executives secretly understood that while software piracy may hurt them financially in the short-term, it had the positive effect of locking the Chinese market into its proprietary platform over the long-term.  With China’s growing economic prosperity, Anderson reports, more and more people there have begun purchasing legitimate Microsoft products.  “Piracy created dependency and helped lower the cost of adoption when it mattered.”  In other words, it was piracy that significantly helped seed the ground for Microsoft’s present dominance in China.

Now, it seems to me that there’s a similar case to be made for e-book piracy.  A little over a year ago, the Guardian’s Bobbie Johnson offered a pro-piracy argument for e-books, suggesting that publishers will only move into the digital realm in earnest once they realize there’s sufficient piracy going on there.  Until they discover they need to control the e-book market, Johnson argues, there’s little incentive for them — and by extension, readers — to make the shift.

While I’m persuaded by Johnson’s thesis in principle, he doesn’t take it far enough.  I’ve already commented on his amnesia about printed book piracy, which over the years has fueled many e-book initiatives.  Now I realize there’s something else going on here, too.  Johnson claims that the music industry embraced digital downloading only after pirates dragged the industry kicking and screaming in that direction.  And where music publishing goes, says Johnson, so too book publishing must go.

The problem with this claim stems from the rather different material histories of sound recording and book publishing.  Wax cylinders, forty-fives, LPs, eight-tracks, cassette tapes, CDs, mini discs, digital audio tapes: the fact is that music formats have changed significantly — indeed, regularly — over the last 50 or 100 years. Music lovers have long understood that “music” is not equivalent to “format.”  Even before the introduction of digital music downloads, listeners were well disposed to format change.

The same isn’t true for books.  With the exception of relatively minor disturbances — chapbooks and paperbacks come most immediately to mind — bibliographic form hasn’t changed all that much since the introduction of the codex.  The result is that book readers are much less inclined to embrace format change, compared to their music-loving counterparts.  And this inertia is, in part, what has held up widespread e-book adoption.

All that brings us back to RapidShare.  What the presses who sued RapidShare don’t seem to understand is that if e-books do indeed represent the future of publishing, then you need to provide readers with significant incentive to embrace the change.  That’s exactly what RapidShare and other file-trading sites have been doing: educating would-be e-book consumers in the virtues of digital reading.

It isn’t stealing.  It’s pirate pedagogy.

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Willy Strikes Again

On the heels of my previous post, concerning a 2000 copyright infringement suit brought against author J. K. Rowling, comes news of new allegations that the Harry Potter scribe may have lifted material from a fellow writer.  The author in question, the late Adrian Jacobs, penned a little-known 40-page children’s book back in 1987 — a decade before the first Potter release — called The Adventure of Willy the Wizard, No. 1 Livid Land.  According to the Jacobs estate, which is initiating the suit, it was he and not Rowling who first conjured up “the idea of wizard prisons, hospitals and schools.”  Rowling has responded by saying that the charges are “not only unfounded but absurd.”  The Jacobs estate estimates that the suit could be worth a billion dollars.

I don’t have much information about the case beyond the press reports to which I’ve linked above, so I want to be cautious about offering too much commentary here.  I will say, however, that I find it difficult to accept the plaintiff’s claim that Rowling’s borrowings are “substantial,” given the brevity of the Willy book. This sounds to me like an attempt to claim ownership of a general concept, which would contravene the longstanding idea-expression divide within U. S. copyright law.  In a nutshell, the law says you can only copyright the specific iteration of an idea, and not the idea itself.  Everything in this case consequently hinges on the question of the specificity of Rowling’s alleged borrowing.

The Willy case reminds of another recent one.  In 2006, Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown was sued by the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, who alleged that Brown had absconded with 15 central themes from their book, as well as its basic plot architecture.  But the judge in the case, Justice Peter Smith, disagreed.  In his ruling he noted: “It is true that aspects of the Central Themes can be traced through the textual parts identified by the Claimants.  That is because the Central Themes are too general and nothing significant is to be concluded from that identification.” (Hats off, by the way, to Justice Smith.  Apropos of the bestselling book in question, he laced the ruling with a secret code of his own.)

Even if the allegations made by the Jacobs estate ultimately don’t hold up in court, they nevertheless underscore a tension that lies at the heart of all of the Harry Potter litigation — including that brought by Rowling herself.  We’re dealing with a book series that, however original in its own right, nonetheless makes copious use of themes, character types, and narratives that are ubiquitous in Western culture.  The fact that there’s  significant overlap with the work of other writers shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all J. K. Rowling.

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