June 18, 2004

Untie My Knowledge! Free My Digits! (1/2)

by Nick Montfort · , 11:32 am

Today I’m at a conference at Penn called Knowledge Held Hostage: Scholarly versus Corporate Rights in the Digital Age. As you might guess, the conference was not about scholars hoarding rights from corporations. I found it interesting that the opposition between scholarly and corporate rights was encoded in the subtitle, as wasn’t the case in Copyright and the Networked Computer. On the one hand, that leaves out artistic, political, and other rights; on the other, it sets up an institutional opponent for corporations – one that has some societal power and is at least somewhat formidable, if the other opponents you’re contemplating are, for instance, Negativland and a Norwegian teenage hacker.

The first panel, pleasantly enough, offered horror stories: Nelson Pavlosky, a sophomore at Swarthmore, sent a take-down notice by Diebold for publishing their internal emails regarding flaws in their voting machine; Janet Wasko, who saw potential research assistance flee her simply because she was doing research on Disney, without considering whether she was copying anything; Ed Felten (who spoke, as did Noah and I, at Copyright and the Networked Computer) facing the RIAA as they tried to prevent his publishing a paper, resulting in one person being fired and half of year of his research time being lost to legal matters. A project to create a CD for medical students, describing how doctors have been portrayed in movies and TV, met with mighty red tape and fees – a familiar story that Noah and I encountered to a lesser degree working on the NMR. The horror stories continued in the question period. On a brighter note, Nelson also plugged the website he founded for an international student movement for free culture, FreeCulture.org.

Polk Wagner of Penn’s Law School gave us an incisive look at fair use – the four factors; how low-impact, altruistic uses can be okay. The main change, perhaps, is not a diminution of fair use but an increase in the “zone of uncertainty,” and attendant increase in litigation. Thus, entitlement shifts to the original holder of rights, in this case, and power shifts to judges and lawyers. The extra-legal context determines appropriability to a great extent, too. His major suggestion was that we recommit to the idea of open access, fighting university administrators to overturn their risk-averse decisions and also recognizing when our own ideas of fair use might be unrealistic. He suggested reforms that would encourage companies, for instance, to make information on licensing available.

The next panel had “the MIT experiment” as its topic. Hal Abelson sketched the MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative, making all faculty-created course materials available for free. Participation is voluntary, a Creative Commons license is used, and copyright remains with authors, so they don’t have consult MIT for permission to make derivative works from their own lecture notes. Most visitors are self-learners, translations are underway. DSpace is the sister initiative, providing online archives of research. The two projects can prevent academic values from becoming marginalized in the online world. Hilarity ensues when Abelson shows a license suggested by the UT-Austin general counsel, one that professors can use to allow students to take notes in their class. Buying into “intellectual property” (as opposed to “the dissemination of knowledge”) as a value is self-defeating. Suggested reading: the book Who Owns Academic Work? Laura Gasaway’s sort of legalistic questioning of some ideas of fair use (and OCW, to some extent) followed this. E.g., someone took another person’s syllabus verbatim, and shouldn’t that be a copyright violation? This just confuses academic ethics with copyright law; if the author of the syllabus said it could be freely used, it’s purely a matter for annual reviews or tenure reviews, and it tortures the issue to characterize it as one of copyright. Abelson’s perspective seemed tremendously more persuasive. Kenneth Crews surveyed the restrictive and problematic TEACH Act, which covers materials used in distance learning, and praised OCW. Rice anthropologist Chris Kelty also had praise for OCW, speaking (in the context of Connexions) about stewardship and new systems of rules to promote collaboration in authorship.

Lunchtime holds a speech by Siva Vaidhyanathan. We’re intended to eat during the talk, but I’ll point again to Copyright and the Networked Computer. His speech from that conference on global ramifications of copyright issues is online there.