Meera Nair

Posts Tagged ‘thesis’

a tale of two licences

In Posts on July 10, 2019 at 6:07 am

Kris Joseph recently penned a thoughtful column concerning institutional procedures that affect graduate students in terms of access and use of their work. After defending his thesis, he had eschewed the typical copyright statement (“Copyright Kris Joseph, 2019”) for his work and chose instead to deposit his thesis with his institution under an open licence. It took some persuasion on his part before his institution would accept his wishes.

Joseph describes a seeming offer of compromise that came at an intermediary point in the negotiation:

To keep my thesis deposit from being rejected, they suggested I remove the open licence from the front of my thesis, use the “standardized” copyright notice on the title page, and then place my Creative Commons licence inside the thesis, at the end of the frontmatter. On the surface this seems fair, but it isn’t: it suggests that the front of my thesis should say “this is mine and you can’t use it,” but if you keep reading and look carefully, you’ll see that I actually mean “this is mine and I want you to use it and thank God you thought to check the 11th page otherwise how would you know?”

The happy ending is that Joseph’s thesis was accepted as he wished to license it. But as he astutely noted, many students would have hesitated to push back on what appears to be a matter of institutional policy.

Graduate students across the country are required to deposit their work in their institution’s online repository—this is the millennium version of the former custom of leaving a copy in the institution’s library. In the later twentieth century, it became addedly necessary to enable a copy to be sent to Library and Archives Canada, to further the goal of making publicly-supported work more widely available to the public. (Moreover, it heightened the possibility that a thesis or a dissertation might actually be read by those continuing in the field.)

To achieve the twin goals of public dissemination and broader awareness of one’s work, Joseph was asked to sign a form that gave:

… the university library and Library and Archives Canada a non-exclusive licence to “archive, preserve, produce, reproduce, publish, communicate, convert into any format, and to make available my Thesis in print or online by telecommunication to the public for educational, research and non-commercial purposes.”

Compare this against Joseph’s own sentiments regarding his intent with his work:

A Creative Commons licence is a convenient way to say “yes, this work is mine and I have copyright. I want you to know that you are free to share it or adapt it or rework it without asking me first, as long as you give me credit and don’t trade it for lucre.”

In neither case would Joseph (and scholars like him) receive any financial reward for enabling public access to the work in question. Interestingly though, it is only in Joseph’s choice of Creative Commons’ licensing terms that a user is deliberately asked to acknowledge who created the work. (The university/LAC license seeks only to ensure that those institutions may legitimately store and distribute the work; it does not bind them to declare how a work should be used.)

Granted, in Canada, moral rights ought to ensure users give due attention to the necessity of attribution, but that is not necessarily true in other countries. (For instance, the United States has a very limited view of moral rights’ obligations.) Whereas Creative Commons is globally recognized and explicitly makes attribution a condition of use.

Of course, the university/LAC license makes no specific allowance for adaptation or re-working, but both functions may well occur under that licence’s broad allowance of “… to make … available to the public for educational, research and non-commercial purposes.”

The irony of Joseph’s experience is that his chosen Creative Commons’ license more closely aligns with academic experience and the social contracts made by higher education/research entities with the public.

Joseph called on universities to make a better effort in educating graduate students with respect to the nature of copyright and its multi-faceted personality, comprising rights of use and rights of control. I concur.

And to which I may add, a better understanding of copyright is needed among staff involved in research and education, across all universities. Not an easy objective to be sure—Joseph’s experience illustrates the challenge that lies ahead for all those attempting to raise the level of copyright literacy: old-world ideas about how copyright is managed are difficult to dislodge.

At its core, that old world was a thicket of gatekeepers.  Copyright was largely exercised by those who produced and distributed the finished product, under arrangements that might not favour the creator of the work. (The dispute between L. M. Montgomery and L.C. Page comes to mind, as does the more recent discord between Taylor Swift and Scooter Braun.) Academia has its own share of copyright difficulties—ranging from the external problem of proprietary journals excluding access to the very community that provides labour and content for free, to, an apparent discomfort in seeing their charges taking charge of their own work.

The critical difference between the two licences of this story, is that in one scenario a middle-entity is given a privilege of, and responsibility for, distributing the work, whereas in the other, the creator seeks to offer the work directly to any interested party willing to transact in the principal currency of academia: the citation.