Copyleft my Master's thesis?
October 20, 2010 2:23 PM   Subscribe

Is it silly or futile to try and convince my university to copyleft (rather than copyright) my Master's thesis?

I have some principled objections to copyrighting my work. For one, there is an ongoing battle among university professors and the university administration about who actually owns the rights to their document, and therefore who can dictate how it may be used. When the hammer swings down, it would seem that the university itself may hold more ownership considering they are the ones to have essentially solicited the work as the "employer". I don't like this.

University politics aside, I don't like the idea of locking my writing up behind this vault and placing so many restrictions on redistribution. I believe knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, should be free and that, as with the scholarly tradition of citing works my thesis should only need be cited if it is used in any shape or form. Under copyright a person would need to obtain permission from the owner, and I don't really believe that's necessary. I would also like to take the opportunity, however small, to use this to make a statement that coincides with my values.

That said, I have been considering the GNU Free Document License, and using this the license on my document would read as follows:
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".
I am thinking this may be too loosey-goosey for the school to even consider, though they'd probably have a good laugh. I am also considering using a Creative Commons license, which technically is a "copyright" (and so they may be more likely to consider it), but it has a copyleft-like feature (Share-alike). For example, Attribution + Noncommercial + ShareAlike would be in my ballpark. This would mean that anyone may redistribute it for noncommercial purposes, and that derivatives are permissible only so long as they adopt the same license in the derivative work.

When I approached my supervisor he was not against the idea, he just seemed to think it would be futile considering the red tape and bureaucracy involved in going against the standard copyright machination that's in place.

Before I send an email to my ombudsman for their advice I'd like to screen this by the Metafilter crowd, who often seem to have a good handle (or at least a worthwhile opinion) on matters such as these.

YANAL, but what do you think?
posted by tybeet to Law & Government (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm planning on creative commons-ing my dissertation.

Talk to the library.
posted by k8t at 2:34 PM on October 20, 2010

Give it a try. What can you lose?

I'd say you should go with the Creative Commons ShareAlike, because there are some restrictions, and that's what this is all about. You could go in saying "I'd like to use the GNU Free Doc License for reasons X, Y and Z, but I imagine you would find that too open. As such, I'd like to use the Creative Commons license with these limitations, for reasons A, B and C." That way, you've already conceded a bit, even without discussing it with them.

Also, if you can find other schools who have changed their licensing, or at least given the masters candidate the option to open up the thesis, then it might look more viable.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:35 PM on October 20, 2010

Response by poster: Library! That's their forté, right? Thanks for the suggestion.
posted by tybeet at 2:36 PM on October 20, 2010

Response by poster: Also, if you can find other schools who have changed their licensing, or at least given the masters candidate the option to open up the thesis, then it might look more viable.

Thanks, I will consider this approach if I meet with any resistance along the way.
posted by tybeet at 2:37 PM on October 20, 2010

Well, you're a student, not a professor, so you own the copyright the minute it's placed in a fixed form. So you can do with it as you please.

I don't see how the university could claim any ownership over your work. You wrote it. It was not work for hire. Copyleft to your heart's content.

That said, IANAL.
posted by inturnaround at 2:38 PM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

As someone who is housing these sorts of documents, there's a variable you have not mentioned — the software. A number of these are stored on a server somewhere, usually under the heading ETD (Electronic Theses and Dissertations). What happens when your university's "have to sign in to view these" content management system conflicts with your copyleft license? Obviously, nothing happens in the software, but may be sticking these behind a wall — not unlike public domain works on DVDs protected by CSS: yes, it would be perfectly legal for you to get at that content, if only breaking CSS weren't illegal under the DMCA.

If everything is sitting up on a webserver somewhere as PDFs served by Apache, no big deal. If you don't care about the situation of "open content behind a locked door," also no big deal, but this sounds like a big deal to you already.

Just a point of consideration to make the situation even more complicated.
posted by adipocere at 2:39 PM on October 20, 2010

Are you a paid employee of the university? If so, odds are very high you have signed away some of the rights you may have to what you create.

Have you substantially used resources owned by the university in the course of your work? If you have (for example, computing clusters), then the university would also have a stronger claim in what you've created.
posted by jasonhong at 2:42 PM on October 20, 2010

When I submitted my thesis (electronically through UMI/ETD, what most US universities use) I had the option to make it "open access" although I don't remember the legal ramifications of that. You had to pay extra for this option, but it was an option.
posted by sararah at 2:47 PM on October 20, 2010

Well, you're a student, not a professor, so you own the copyright the minute it's placed in a fixed form. So you can do with it as you please.

I don't see how the university could claim any ownership over your work. You wrote it. It was not work for hire.

You don't know that it wasn't a work for hire. The asker may already have signed a contract making it one. Or assignment of the copyright to the university may be a requirement for graduation. Those are important details that the asker will need to find out, as they make things go from 'difficult' to 'Herculean.'

Anyway, if the university stonewalls on the copyleft or CC idea, you may consider putting a preprint of the thesis up on SSRN or some other publicly accessible website. In my experience it's common for professors to put up preprints that are virtually identical to the published paper as a kind of end-run around academic journals. Your university may be more comfortable with that.
posted by jedicus at 2:47 PM on October 20, 2010

Also another person to talk to would be the person in charge of thesis submissions at your university. We specifically had a staff person at the Grad College who was responsible for the thesis submission and would approve your thesis formatting, etc, before you submitted the final copy to UMI. This person also held a "thesis submission class" where people graduating that semester could go to learn more about the process, so you might want to look into whether that is something offered at your university. My university had a very helpful thesis submission page on the Grad College website, and like 95% of the info at the thesis submission class was also on the website.
posted by sararah at 2:49 PM on October 20, 2010

Open Access FAQ from UMI
posted by sararah at 2:50 PM on October 20, 2010

Another thing to think about is whether any of this work will be published in scholarly journals prior to or after your thesis publication.

1. If journal articles are published before your thesis is published, then you have to obtain copyright releases from the journal saying that it is ok for you to put this in your thesis. For the vast majority of journals, this was just somewhere on the website, only one journal (it was an Springer journal) did I have to fill out a form.

2. If stuff in your thesis will be published in journals after the fact, sometimes journals get gripey about how this stuff has "already been published." I have never heard of this being an issue in real life, but it was a question someone had throughout the process.
posted by sararah at 2:54 PM on October 20, 2010

I don't see how the university could claim any ownership over your work. You wrote it.

Typically students sign a contract saying (at the very least) that the university can do things like photocopy the work and submit it to plagiarism-detection services. In my case, the university also wants the right to post the work online, to hold a printed copy in the library and loan it out, to distribute photocopies of up to 10% of the work, and to convert the work to different file formats.

So they wouldn't let you grant them fewer rights, but I doubt they'd mind you granting them (and indeed the world) more rights. It's my understanding that normally students retain copyright, so if you wanted to put a copy of the thesis on your personal website with a creative commons header on it, that would be your right.

There are certain situations where some universities will assert part-ownership - for example, if a student's million-dollar invention came about after discussions with engineering academics, or having university technicians build a prototype. There might be some boilerplate in the enrolment paperwork agreeing to this.

My university has some copyright experts on staff, details found by searching my school's website for 'copyright'; I suggest you do the same search on your school's website!
posted by Mike1024 at 3:11 PM on October 20, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all your suggestions! I have emailed the Library asking for their advice, and inquired about the license I propose to submit my documents with and whether it will be compatible with the database that they will later on appear in. I think the Creative Commons strikes a good compromise for me between my values and the university's needs. Here's to hoping they give me a green light. I presented it reasonably, and the terms of the license appear to be suitable so I have a hard time anticipating on what grounds they would deny it. If they do, then I may contact the ombudsman and see what they have to say.
posted by tybeet at 3:39 PM on October 20, 2010

Response by poster: Can I use this as a forum to promote Open Access Week

Be my guest!
posted by tybeet at 5:21 PM on October 20, 2010

Holy good timing, Batman. This is exactly my specialty, plus I just spent all day today in a meeting about this very topic. I'm a scholarly communications librarian (the librarian that works with a library's institutional repository). Here's how we do it at our university. When students deposit their thesis or dissertation, it goes to two places. One is Proquest/UMI Dissertation Indexing and Abstracting. This is a company that collects dissertations from most US colleges and universities. The advantage you get when your work is in their database is that other academics have a one-stop-shop if they want to search dissertation research in their field. In a traditional Proquest deposit you keep full copyright, they charge people who order print or online copies of your diss through them, and they pay you royalties. You can also make the work Open Access (so that everyone can access the full text without paying any fee) by paying $95 to Proquest when you deposit. Basically, you're compensating them upfront for income that they might otherwise have earned by their cut of selling individual copies.

BUT your institution's library should also have an institutional repository. This is a place for faculty and students to share their work online. Anything from theses to conference presentations to data sets could live here. Some schools, like mine, mandate that Masters and PhD students MUST deposit their theses and dissertations in the IR, but if yours doesn't it is always an option to put it there anyway. When you deposit something in the IR, the default is that it's open access, freely available to all. In addition you can include whatever CC or GNU license you want if you want people to be able to do more than just read it for free. If you want to embargo your work and deposit it but keep it inaccessible for a certain amount of time due to pending patents, publisher requirements, etc., you have to specifically request that option. So, for most libraries, what you want is actually closer to the default than not.

If your university has mandated ETD deposit, these options should all be available on the standard form (the open access or embargo options, I mean. You'd still have to add a CC license yourself.), and if there is no mandated online deposit, you should be able to add your work to the repository anyway.

Let me know if you have any further questions, or MeMail me if you want to share the name of your university, and I can probably find out exactly who you need to talk to in your library. Coincidentally, this is also Open Access Week. You might want to read up on the OA movement. You'll find a lot of like-minded academics.
posted by MsMolly at 5:56 PM on October 20, 2010 [22 favorites]

You, or anyone else, don't "copyright" anything.

Copyright is a legal right afforded to the creators of works, which gives the creator/author the right to choose how restrictive or unrestrictive they want to be. It is what allows authors to choose Creative Commons or All Rights Reserved or whatever. You can't *not* copyright something.
posted by gjc at 6:46 PM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

In the same vein as Proquest/UMI, if you're in Canada, odds are that your graduate department will ask (require?) that you submit your thesis to Library and Archives Canada. In particular, this involves signing their Theses Non-exclusive License [pdf] which grants LAC license:
to reproduce, publish, archive, preserve, conserve, communicate to the public by telecommunication or on the Internet, loan, distribute and sell my thesis (the title of which is set forth above) worldwide, for commercial or non-commercial purposes, in microform, paper, electronic and/or any other formats
I don't know if/how this affects your situation.
posted by mhum at 10:13 PM on October 20, 2010

You can also make the work Open Access (so that everyone can access the full text without paying any fee) by paying $95 to Proquest when you deposit.

This is why I didn't register my disastertation with The Man. That, and the fact that it's terrible.
posted by mecran01 at 3:21 PM on October 23, 2010

Response by poster: Update: I've now heard back from my university library, and I've been told that they are developing a pilot program that may be in place by the time I submit my thesis in the summer which would allow me to submit to an institutional open access repository. Thanks everyone for your help!
posted by tybeet at 7:51 AM on October 31, 2010

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