Theses and Google Print

Many of you likely received this email from Kembrew McLeod via Thisbe, but if not, here you go. If you would like to oppose this project (which does sound rather dodgy) email him ASAP at kembrew at kembrew dot com.

Short version: graduating MFA students must sign a release form in order to graduate - this form says that their theses will be posted in full online.

(Apologies for the formatting - I deleted a couple of other people's names in case they didn't want them out on the global interwebs)



Apparently, the U of Iowa has entered into a deal whereby MFA writing theses will be placed online, in full, as content fodder for Google's ad-driven Print project. You know my positions on copyright and open flows of information, but this policy -- which requires students to sign off on this if they want to graduate -- seems really misguided.

There is a meeting about the policy this Friday, March 14, and I'm trying to gather opinions about this plan from other writers, so I thought I would check to see how you would feel about this, if you were a student. Also, feel free to pass along this email to any other concerned>> writers; tell them they can email me their opinions -- kembrew at kembrew dot com -- by Thursday, March 13.

I'll include an email I have written to the person who is representing the MFA students in the meeting on Friday, in case you want more background:

[Name of person representing MFA students],

After doing research on this issue over the weekend and informally polling several writers, editors, agents, UI writing program alums, and copyright experts I know, I can unequivocally say that this has to be one of the most poorly thought out, misguided, and perhaps truly stupid and irresponsible policies this university has attempted to ram down down our throats. (Where's the transparency? The clause just magically appeared on the deposit forms? Amazing!) I urge you to convey these sentiments to [the dean] in your meeting on Friday, because this policy cannot stand, particularly for MFA theses. Here is why: I think students who write creative theses (or translation works, and probably other kinds of writing that need to be considered) should have the option to withhold their work from an open access, online form of distribution -- though they should of course continue to be published as hard copies with the libraries.

On one hand, having a scholarly thesis or dissertation available more widely is a win-win for everyone -- the scholar who gets quoted, those who stumble across a dissertation on a topic they are researching, etc. On the other hand, I think creative work is qualitatively different. I can understand why some wouldn't want that work circulating widely and easily, for either artistic or economic reasons. That is because we are talking about different worlds -- the economies and professional norms of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, journalism, essay writing, academic writing, and other genres are all quite different -- so I can see why students (and faculty) are uncomfortable (or angry) about this. They can't all be lumped together with a uniform university publishing policy. You know my positions on copyright and the importance of free flows of information, but I also understand why some writers would want to keep control of their texts, because in many instances, theses aren't really considered completed works in certain fields. It's more of a process. God knows, I wouldn't want some of my grad school essays and papers being published, or my senior undergrad honors thesis published widely. When I was a student I saw this sort of writing as more of a fulfillment of the degree, and a learning process, rather than a publishing contract. Inversely, there are instances when a MF (or translation) thesis may in fact be the final product, more or less, and I can also understand why they do not want that work published in this way.

Speaking to this concern, I talked to my literary agent about this yesterday, one who represents both marginal academics and well-known authors, and who has been in publishing since 1972. Her first reaction was that this mode of distribution would be a cause for concern for some book editors, and might cause them to pass on a manuscript. It's not like she's wing-nut RIAA copyright lawyer; she supported me in getting Random House to distribute a free pdf copy of my entire book, Freedom of Expression. However, that was a decision I made on my own, because it worked for me. I'd hate to see a blanket policy imposed on other writers.

Anyway, it's not as if any student attending the University of Iowa has entered into a publishing contract with the school, so why does the university have the right to publish their work and use it as content fodder for Google's ad-driven Print project? Especially when students are paying UI tuition! As a labor issue, this is totally unfair and exploitative.

I'll be forwarding you some outraged emails from UI alums and nationally known writers, as well as one from a copyright expert, who is also known for his championing of libraries and open flows of information. [He] feels this policy is "alarming," as he put it, while responses from other writers contain four-letter words that probably shouldn't be included in an official university email or memo. I'm also passing along [another person's] endorsement of the NWP students' opposition to this plan.

Best, Kembrew


Grendel said...

The proposed online publishing deal is only for theses going forward, right -- not the ones archived at the library?! That would be an outrageous breach of trust. As for the plan as I understand it, which may not be very well, it seems the UI means to place some deal with Google above the interests of its own students. This plan will surely fail or be modified. It has to, right? You can't just hold someone's degree hostage until they agree to your sketchy deal with a big corporation ... can you? One should at least be able to opt out of something like this. If I were a potential student, it would make me wary.

cfp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cfp said...

(Nothing nefarious in the repost- I mentioned a name that I was asked to remove. I then revised the comment for quality, not substance.)

As a level 7/1 writer/librarian dual-class, I have entirely too much to say about this. Apologies in advance for that (and regarding my lame joke above- RIP Gygax).

1) Google has mechanisms in place for indexing text without making it viewable. My understanding is that this mechanism is engaged when they either cannot ascertain copyright or the rights holder requests it. That would seem to be the obvious solution here- someone could use Google Scholar to get the metadata on a thesis but would still have to go to the library to read it. That would satisfy me, at least, by removing from the equation any possible sense of the material being "published."

2) Is this legally defensible? I won't pretend to know, but it doesn't seem that it should be. I'm not sure the university understands that they are essentially requiring that writers give over the first publication rights on their artistic work. Not only are those rights worth something, they might be most valuable to the artist as a means of keeping the work UNpublished. The fact that Google can, in fact, do its thing without taking those rights would seem to put this squarely on the university.

3) I'm an "information wants to be free" kind of guy, but I think this is one of those situations where the first thing we must acknowledge is that under the current rules it is NOT free. We cannot allow digitization to be yet another means of demeaning artist rights, especially since Google is almost certainly compensating the university for this and is only doing it to make money anyway. So they're already admitting, however implicitly, that this is worth money. So the transaction with the artist should be fair and voluntary. There's a way to do this that's mutually agreeable-- increased access can benefit the artist under certain conditions--but in the absence of that, we should fight this tooth and nail.

If people cannot persuade the workshop or the university library to do something about this, then maybe someone should expand the effort to the media. Not that the media cares about this stuff, but you know.

4) Grendel, my guess is that they'll start with the new stuff and eventually work backwards. If someone in IC could go to the library, check out my thesis and kindly burn it, I'd be indebted.

5) My advice to students: talk to your advisor. If it were me, I'd see if I could get away with greeking the text of my thesis, or handing in blank pages.

HGF said...

I'm not sure I understand it all, either. Pete's analysis is great and shows just how many issues are on the table. For example, what exactly is the publishing agreement graduate students reach with a university in the "publishing" of the thesis? It's not a publishing contract, as Kembrew points out, yet depositing the thesis is a form of publication. It's clear that students retain copyright over their intellectual material, and so have a serious and ongoing weapon against digital publication. But there remains the question, how is creative work (created in fulfillment of an academic requirement) to be valued against scholarly work (created on the same terms). MFA students should not be silently swept up in the scholarly movement (witness, the Harvard faculty) towards free open access on scholarly publications.

Here's Edward Shreeves, Associate University Librarian & Director, Collections and Scholarly Communication at the UI Libraries, whose statement on the matter addresses Grendel's first question and goes hand-in-hand with what Pete says in his first point:

"We have no plans at present to digitize hard-copy theses and make them available. We have made available online some dissertations submitted electronically. They are not published 'with Google' but Google of course can index them and lead searchers to them. I should also make clear the distinction between doctoral dissertations, which must be submitted to Proquest, and Masters Theses (which I undersand MFAs are a species of), which are not currently required to be submitted to Proquest, according to my understanding. Proquest does digitize dissertations submitted to it, and they are made available in limited fashion unless a student opts for open access. This is a bit complicated and I’d be happy to respond to questions by phone, which may be quicker to resolve any remaining questions.

"The bottom line is that your thesis is not going to be digitized in the foreseeable future."

I (and a lot of people from the WW) took heart from this message, thinking it was just a miscommunication between grad college, which requires the thesis as an element of the degree the college awards, and the library, which will act as repository and in some sense the site of publication. Students at the Non-fiction program, however, did not demobilize, and I think they were right not to. The sky may not be falling, but the ground is shifting. I don't think it's digital publication, per se (and translation students, for example, couldn't even give permission, often not having the publication rights to the materials they're working on--weirdly their creative work has a scholarly "fair use" dimension). So what is it, exactly, and who's driving the change? Is the university simply moving in the natural direction of the information age? There seems a general suspicion that either external money (from a Google or other digitizer, or perhaps ProQuest) or an expectation of future money is catalyzing a need to change the legal terms of the publishing agreement grad students have with the college. But it may not be dollars. Perhaps it's simply an outgrowth of the UI Libraries' and CIC's agreement to join Google BookSearch. Information about the agreement can be found at http://www.cic.uiuc.edu/digitalbooks/

A representative for the nonfiction students is meeting with a dean on Friday, and Kembrew has a follow-up on Tuesday.

El Gordo de Amore said...

While the library may have no plans to digitize, the form clearly states this "The University of Iowa Library ultimately intends to scan hard-copy theses and dissertations, too, and make them open-access

Whatever the library does, it seems someone in the Graduate College is planning on going scan happy. I would guess someone with a lot of under-employed work study students.

Or Satan.

You can never discount Satan.

El Gordo De Amore

cfp said...

Right- I don't think it matters if there are immediate plans to digitize or not.

The university is basically saying this: we think we have to ask permission to do this thing we have no immediate plans of doing, and by the way, you can't say no.

While I don't believe there are any nefarious motives here, I also don't think it matters. Because the real issue from my pov isn't the university or Google, but how digital technology messes with distribution models designed for print.

That's a huge and undergoing process. No one can say with any certainty how this issue will look in 10 or even 5 years. But in the meantime we must take measures to ensure that the workshop isn't a place where writers have to give up creative rights to get the degree.

cfp said...

On the larger issue, I really do believe that digitization is a good thing. I'm with Google on this, and I think that any university that can meaningfully contribute to the project should-- and that Google should pay them for that.

I just wanted to clarify that since it would have been reasonable to infer from my first comment that I think this all comes down to filthy luchre. (To the extent that everything comes down to such things--including, for example, my lunch-- maybe it does, but that's too reductive for me).

Really, I think this is about the trickiest sort of consequences: the unintended ones. In a moment of such dramatic change, institutions have an obligation to limit to the greatest extent possible.

Grendel said...

An update from Kembrew:

Wednesday, March 12

Hello, and Greetings From Iowa City:

Over the past twenty-four hours I have dealt various University of Iowa administrators, and I now have a (somewhat) better understanding of how UI is handling the controversy over the possible online publishing of MFA theses. Regardless, I am still somewhat confused about what exactly is going on, and I feel like I have taken a hit of bureaucracy-flavored LSD.

From what I can tell, the UI Library doesn't seem to be at fault; they have no plans to scan MFA theses now or in the future. I know and trust our librarians, and the ones I have talked to -- including Paul A. Soderdahl, Director, Library Information Technology -- fully agree that it is a bad idea to put MFA theses online.

That's the good news -- no old theses are being scanned, and there are no plans to do so. However, there is bad news, and it affects current MFA students who want to graduate from UI this year.

The controversy stems from a piece of paperwork that students have to sign in order to deposit their thesis, and therefore graduate. It's called a "First Deposit" form (found here: http://www.grad.uiowa.edu/pubs/forms/FirstDepositChecklist.pdf). It contains brand new language that can be construed as a license that hands over student thesis publishing rights to the University of Iowa -- unless an embargo form is signed, and that embargo only lasts two years. I ran the First Deposit form by a very good entertainment lawyer who confirmed this reading. In short, it's a badly written, ill-conceived document.

The problem is that the Graduate College (which gives out degrees) won't revise this contested language (which it wrote), and the deadline to turn in the First Deposit form is approaching in two weeks. Even after internal pressure from students, staff, and faculty, the Graduate College has refused to revert to the old, uncontroversial form.

I said before that this doesn't appear to have anything to do with Google Print, but that's not entirely true. The language of this new Graduate College form would allow for MFA theses deposited this year to eventually be posted on Google Print, which is a reminder that we need good university policies regarding copyright protections and exceptions. I highly recommend UVA Prof. Siva Vaidhyanathan's blog, The Googlization of Everything: http://www.googlizationofeverything.com/, for more info about the broader implications of the Google Print project.

This Friday, March 14, my colleague Loren Glass will meet with a Dean at the Graduate College, Dale Wurster. Loren is representing the concerns of UI's Nonfiction Writing Program -- which has led this fight -- and he will try to convince Dean Wurster to go back to the old form. Sadly, it's not an open meeting, and I won't even be attending (Wurster scheduled me for an individual meeting next week, instead).

UI librarian Paul Soderdahl and others have been urging the Graduate College to revert to the old First Deposit form until we have time to write a sane publishing policy regarding MFA theses. But there seems to be some kind of breakdown between the Graduate College and the Library, some kind of bizarre communication-scrambling wormhole that spits out contradictory information.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on an April 5 deposit date, like a really boring bureaucratic version of the TV show 24 -- all while this year's crop of MFA graduates could suffer negative consequences. Based on my own experience, I feel that UI's Graduate College has a really poor record with copyright issues, including fair use, and I am not hopeful that things will turn around. However, the external pressure might help.


Kembrew McLeod

P.S. Please spread the word in emails and blogs, and you have my permission to reprint this email.

cfp said...

Maybe it's time for this to get legal. It seems outrageous that the GC could withhold degrees in a rights grab. As I said before, they probably just don't understand the problem and they're being pretty insistent on it. There needs to be a way to be insistent back.

Vaidhyanathan's stuff is great, but there's a Lawrence Lessig video that counterpoints some of the bigger concerns about Google and copyright. I'll see if I can find it. It seems unlikely that any of you guys would be interested in spending the half hour to watch it, but I actually enjoyed it.

The long and short: yes, we should be weary of Google as we should be weary of all major corporate entities, particularly in moments of flux, technological or otherwise. They're interest is profit above all else means that they will drive the technology and its use towards this profit motive-- with what amounts to indifference to the public good.

But that notwithstanding, no one but Google has the capacity to do mass-digitization in a timely manner-- or to withstand the copyright lawsuits that have been thrown at it.

I only know all this stuff because I just did a project on it. Copyright is woefully complicated, but if you believe Lessig, the question at stake is really this: should texts with an unknowable/unclaimed copyright holder be legal to digitize? That's a lot of books. If the answer is no, we risk a future with large parts of the past that much less accessible, which seems like a bad thing for the public good. Our culture is amnesiac enough already, isn't it?

So that's the issue more generally with google-- not forcing individual authors to make their books available online.

What makes this MFA issue so interesting, to me at least, is that the GC is reserving the very rights that Google has taken pains to assure everyone they aren't afte (and that, really, there is no reason to believe Google is after).

El Gordo de Amore said...


Barbara said...

In the past, didn't the university give that right of publication routinely to UMI? I know there are significant differences between making a text available for a price and putting it on the Internet, but I'm not sure there wasn't already a kind of "rights grab" in place.

Theses and dissertations bought from UMI by Google Books participating libraries are having them scanned already - though they are only viewable only in snippets. Just do an advanced search with "thesis" or "dissertation" and UMI as publisher and you can see some examples.

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