Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A personal copyright dilemma

I'm turning to you for some advice as I'm trying to determine a course of action that will allow me to sleep at night. Here's the situation. I participated in conducting a case study last year that resulted in what I think is a pretty decent report. I'm happy with the work, and it's stimulating a fair amount of attention and spurring many interesting conversations.

My co-authors are now reworking the report to submit it for publishing. The first draft is completed. I am a co-author and it is absolutely a joint work-- all five authors own the copyright (and I hate the concept of ownership of ideas, but I'm trying to stick to the standard jargon). My colleagues want to submit the article to a journal that requires the granting to it of an all-rights-reserved copyright. This journal recently was asked to publish something using a Creative Commons license, and after much deliberation decided to retain their all-rights-reserved conditions. Therein lies my dilemma.

I have no interest in having my name listed on this article. As I tweeted earlier this week in response to a friend's comment on how copyright is harming the poor, "... IMO, [it] is a reprehensible position for public institutions. Copyright is a moral and ethical issue, not a business decision." To me, allowing my name on the article is to accept that which I find morally repugnant, and I'm not going to do it. On the other hand, I don't want to impose my values on the others. If they want (or need) to publish this article I don't want to stop them. BUT, the article does contain my words and isn't publishing my words under their names a tad dishonest?

Submitting it to another journal is not an option. There are two possible choices and both require releasing the articles to them with all-rights-reserved. I will mention that one of these journals has a recommendation in front of its board to switch to an open-license. They've been sitting on this recommendation for almost three years now without taking action.

So what to do? It's not an option for me to consent to having my name on the article. That's not going to happen. What about my ideas? Is just walking away from my work a tenable approach? Your advice and counsel is appreciated.


luannphillips said...

Since you have two choices of journal, play them off of each other. Submit the article to both, offering it only with Creative Commons licensing, and include a cover letter stating your point of view. Let them know that the one who accepts your terms first gets to publish the article. If your material is very interesting to them, the competitive situation should provoke one or the other to reconsider their point of view.

Steve Judd said...

Have the other authors submit the article and include an authors' note stating that you contributed significantly to the article, but chose not to be listed as an author due to the copyright policy, but are allowing your thoughts and ideas to be published by the other authors under a CC attribution license.

Kevin Gamble said...


One of the journals in question just rejected an author's request to use a CC license. They basically said, "we insist on all-rights-reserved". So I think that door is shut. I'm also not the lead author so I really don't feel all that comfortable dictating the terms to everyone else.


I don't think with joint ownership that you can split off portions of a work and declare them to have different rights. I know you can sometimes do this in a book if different authors have contributed separate chapters, but not with articles. If only it were like movies where we have scripts, soundtracks, film... as unique entities. This was written in the cloud. It's really easy to see whose words are whose.


What I did, because they were in a hurry to submit, was ask them to remove my name as an author. I know that by default I still hold the copyright, but at least in this case my name won't appear as a person who accepted the terms.

I'm suspecting this won't fly... there have to be some terms in the contract that the others will need to sign-off-on that the work is theirs, and of course it isn't. I do know that I will never make a claim against it, but that won't stop risk-averse attorneys from balking. Sigh!


Peg Boyles said...

Several thoughts emerged as I read your post, Kevin:

You write: I hate the concept of ownership of ideas," then later, "What about my ideas?"

Remember, no one can copyright an idea, concept, system, or method of operation--only its "fixed expression."

So you're free to mix and mash up your ideas and express them where you will in other ways that won't violate the copyright of the piece you don't want to sign. (It's tricky, though, to substantially rewrite a piece in such a way that you don't plagiarize yourself.)

You also write: Copyright is a moral and ethical issue, not a business decision.

I'd respectfully disagree. I think organizations/institutions (even public institutions)almost always use copyright to protect their financial interests. The moral quandary belongs to you(us).

In my view, you have at least one powerful path forward:

You can accept reality, allow the work to be published with your name attached, then write a forceful letter of protest to the editor of the journal, laying out your perspective in detail. I think they'd publish it.

You might want to develop the theme of your letter further in a strong opinion piece and send it to, say, The Chronicle of Higher Education's Op Ed

I think both actions would create some buzz. And hey, they might just coalesce a movement.

Kevin Gamble said...


"What about my ideas?" That's a good catch. Perhaps a case of some contextual misinterpretation (but I'll accept the blame for being obscure. I do that a lot.)

I didn't say I had no ideas. I think my issue here is with controlling the further redistribution of those ideas. I absolutely believe that all ideas are built upon the works of others. Originality, if it presents itself, is just a more creative form of recombination and tweaking. To quote Einstein, "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." I'm certain that the ideas I expressed in the article are not mine. I also have no idea where they originated. :)

I don't think the actors involved in this decision were making a business decision. The product is already given away for free online. There's no money to be lost by allowing the free redistribution of these materials. This isn't about money, it's about control. Public institutions, financed at public expense, have no business inhibiting the free flow of knowledge. Why would I want to perpetuate and promote this by my acceptance of their terms. I can see nothing in the original purpose of copyright (state granted monopolies) that would justify its use for information created at citizen expense.

Thomas Jefferson mentioned this, the fear that copyright could produce more "embarrassment than advantage." That intellectual property rights might actually inhibit sharing of “ideas . . . [to] freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man,” The very concept of a state sponsored educational entity restricting the free spread of knowledge is repugnant. It flies in the face of our basic mission of helping people to improve their lives through learning.

I'm almost certain that we will be writing something to make the case for the Land-Grant system to embrace open licensing and Open Educational Resources. I doubt we'll submit it to the journal in question. It's that obscurity thing rearing its ugly head... Plus, they'd want to apply a restrictive copyright and we'd want a permissive copyright. (The current dilemma.) We would want the messages to be spread as wide and far as possible. Want to help us write it?


Peg Boyles said...

Hah! Even if they publish their journal online for all to read, I still maintain that holding onto the exclusive rights (and they have to always; can't set a precedent that permits open licensing for some content) constitutes a hardcore business (financial) decision. Yup, control may be big part of it, but $$ underlie the need for control.

I also wouldn't worry about the obscurity of the journal in question. After all, you seek to persuade folks who fall into its sphere of influence.

Then absolutely take the case into less--obscure venues as well. More than one. Tipping Point theory aside, you generally can't generate a movement or change mass behavior with one big salvo.

I'd feel honored to have a place on your team. Sign me up as a copy editor for your campaign. In this instance, I'd rather edit than write, and I know you'll need an editor. (I've had a LOT of experience with collaborative writing in my current paying job. I'd much prefer to push back, question, tweak, reorder, rework, and sprinkle the fairy dust on the rough drafts of such works. ;-)

So when & where do we meet?

Peg Boyles said...

Maybe work in a Wave? Further my higher learning.

Floyd Davenport said...

Really good discussion. I'm assuming it is much more important for your colleagues (than you) to publish with this Journal (or any Journal). Is it credibility and visibility?

It seems clear you can't negotiate this control/business model... just disrupt it. So the question becomes how to disrupt the process and retain the credibility and visibility... maybe I'm looking at it wrong.??

Kevin Gamble said...


Yep, I don't need to publish. And, for that matter, the report is already published. It's already receiving pretty broad distribution.

Publishing in this instance is about promotion and tenure. Sometimes I think we do our clientele a disservice when we try to fit our programs into a system that really wasn't designed for what we do. It uses a lot of resources and provided little benefit to the people we serve-- it's perhaps even a resource suck.