creative commons licensing, dissertations, and you!

Looking for a dumb idea? Here’s one – stop blogging as a way to “focus” on your thesis. That’s right, I’m back and I have nothing. Two weeks of “nothing”, strange as it sounds, produced absolutely “nothing”. This morning I decided to cut my losses, and went off in search of meaning and I found lots of it.

Looking for some good ideas? danah boyd suggests grad students should publish their dissertations using a creative commons license:

But I also want to make a plea to all of you grad students out there who are slaving away on your dissertations… Use Creative Commons. The forms you fill out when you file your diss under ProQuest encourage you to make sure to copyright your dissertation. While theft is part of the framing, it is also framed as being about you profiting off of doing so (and ProQuest brokering the sale of your diss). Realistically, 99% of all grad students are never going to see a dime directly from their dissertation. What’s the advantage of keeping “all rights reserved”? Why not let folks use it for whatever non-commercial purposes they deem fit (like teaching a chapter or two in class)? I mean… I would LOVE it if someone translated my dissertation. Or remixed it. Or turned it into a movie. That ain’t ever gonna happen, but still… why actively prevent it?

And while we’re at it… why not make it freely available? Part way through my dissertation, I realized that I had never read a dissertation. I was surprised to find that very few people make their dissertations easily available. Why? In some senses, the diss is quite embarrassing. It’s imperfect. You’re sick of it. But there are huge advantages to making it available. At the very least, it allows future students to get a sense of what they should expect. (There was nothing more nerve-calming than realizing that my mentors’ dissertations were totally sloppy at points.)

This blog has been using the creative commons license for a while now and I hope my thesis will too. I’ve also been looking into the open access publishing option available with ProQuest. Having referenced numerous papers produced and shared by grad students, I look forward to more being made available online. I also hope these papers make their way into self-archiving repositories, because it isn’t easy to find the thousands of great papers people post on their blogs!

But doesn’t an author already have copyright on his work? What does the creative commons license add? Well for one thing, it makes the kind of copyright explicit, and allows for some control over how the work will be used. Christopher Kelty was recently asked this question in response to his book “Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software”:

“I understand the purpose of Two Bits, and the thesis behind the other assignments, however, I found a fundamental problem with the idea of “sharing” as promoted here. At the bottom of your About page there is a link “Material on this site released under a Creative Commons By-NC-SA 3.0 License. On this page, you are encouraged to “share” and “remix” the work, but only if you “attribute” it, and that the work you create is “noncommercial” and “shared alike.”

I understand that there is the element that you can change a text, but you still have to refer back to the original and as the Two Bits site indicates, leave the author’s name on the work. Given this then, how is the Creative Commons Attribution basically any different than citing a work that you write about?”

Kelty responds that the creative commons license at least clarifies copyright and usage issues:

“If I had put the site and book online without the CC-BY-NC license on it (i.e. relying only on the full power of copyright), you would have no rights whatsover to do anything with it. Arguably, you would only barely have the right to read it, since in doing so you would be making an unauthorized copy. You would certainly have no right to re-distribute it, change it, or remix it, whether for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

So the CC license gives you the right to do that, and yes, it does that subject to certain restrictions– that you attribute the source work to me (though you would own the copyright on the modified work), and that you refrain from competing with Duke. You retain your “fair use” rights (which generally covers the right to cite a work in another context) regardless of whether there is a license or not… but fair use is a tricky and limited doctrine… it should cover more than just citation, and in some ways the CC license is just a clear and explicit legal green light to you to exercise, at minimum, your fair use rights.

A more radical gesture would be to dedicate the book and the writings here to the public domain, which would in principle mean that you could do whatever you want with it, no restrictions.”

Isn’t the main idea to simply allow people to access academic research more easily? Not for some! Beyond the price-barrier issue are arguments against controlling ideas through intellectual property rights. See Rich’s post “Fuck Creative Commons” where he writes:

“Acceptance for the license is growing globally and their legality has been proven in court. However, I feel there is a type of evil greed that undercuts the good intentions of the foundation, hidden in its subtle support of the existing copyright structure.”

So within the “open access” movement are numerous competing ideals. Stephen Harnad argues that most researchers goals for open access to research can be satisfied by breaking down the price-barrier. Self-archiving and open access journals can achieve this. There are also more radical arguments against intellectual property.

Personally, I don’t see how I can remix an essay licensed with the creative commons any differently than I can one published in a ‘locked down’ journal. How I use material in an academic context isn’t really controlled by legalities, but by academic tradition. Legally I can cite Wikipedia.  Morally I want to cite Wikipedia.  Some teachers won’t let you anyways.

I do see how making the material free to access online helps me and other researchers tremendously. But if someone wanted to take paragraphs from my blog, post them in a collage, then throw paint all over it as some sort of art installation – well do I really care if they attribute my work? Nope.  So maybe in some ways I disagree with my own use of the creative commons license.

At least I get to use the fancy logo which might be a rhetorical trick to establish authority and value!

+1 to remixing other peoples great blog posts.


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