How to license academic works?

Posted 3 May 2001 at 12:18 UTC by dirtyrat Share This

Many's the time when I've been thoroughly annoyed whilst trying to get hold of academic papers and theses only to find that they have distribution terms that are so badly worded that they are verging on the draconian. Often electronic distribution is if not forbidden then not explicitly permitted and I've had to wait for a paper/film copy to arrive from another library. I'm currently embarking on writing my PhD thesis and, although I'm not so vain as to expect that anyone would want to read it, I want to ensure that people aren't needlessly restricted from doing so. How do I spare future researchers from this inconvenience?

The copyright message that is traditionally attached to theses from my lab goes as follows:

Attention is drawn to the fact that copyright of this thesis rests with its author. This copy of the thesis has been supplied on condition that anyone who consults it is understood to recognise that its copyright rests with its author and that no quotation from the thesis and no information derived from it may be published without the prior written consent of the author.

This thesis may be made available for consultation within the University Library and may be photocopied or lent to other libraries for the purposes of consultation.

The second paragraph is the one I particularly dislike: it seems rather specific as to what you are allowed to do with it, and almost implies a terminal ``No other uses of this thesis are allowed''. My other problem is with the ``...no quotation ... and no information derived from it may be published without the prior written consent of the author.'' Surely this defeats the point of a published thesis, or have I misread it?

After some consideration, I don't feel that the GFDL is relevant to something like a thesis: it isn't a document that will ever evolve, but rather a work of reference upon which others may build upon. With this in mind, granting the right for others to modify it seems wrong. I don't, however, wish to inhibit people from converting it from one file format to another and I have no problems with people having the TeX build tree or indeed using the style files that I have written for their own work.

What, in short, should I do about this?


Often it's not really up to you. , posted 3 May 2001 at 14:30 UTC by grib » (Journeyer)

At most US universities, the copyright to theses and dissertations is owned by the university, not the student; generally you have to sign a copyright disclaimer form before publication of the thesis. For the most part, the license terms are typical book-publishing terms: fair use and that's it.

Total sidetrack about the clusterf**k that is in the process of hitting academic publishing.... ok, I choked it back.

If you own the copyright, you can use whatever license you want. Sounds like what you want is to allow people to (1) use and distribute the text of your dissertation widely, but keep it intact and keep your authorship information attached and (2) use and change your "infrastructure" (style files, any build system you might have, LaTeX tricks, etc) in whatever way they want.

Seems like you could say this pretty straightforwardly in a license that you attach to the document; just include language that separates the textual content of the dissertation from the formatting/typesetting information. You can de facto make your work widely distributable by hanging it off your web pages somewhere, regardless of what the license says. People *will* download and print it if you point them at it, and if you own the copyright there's nobody else that has standing to take any action about it but you. Make it a print-only format like postscript if you're concerned about people boosting the text.

IANAL.

Bill Gribble
Gnumatic

Re: Often it's not really up to you., posted 3 May 2001 at 14:46 UTC by dirtyrat » (Journeyer)

I originally thought that the cited copyright message was some kind of default University of Bath one, but it seems that people here put whatever they want on the front. It seems that in the majority of cases this happens without conscious thought.

Regardless of this, the copyright on the thesis is wholly my own, as is the copyright on both my published papers although this is not the case on most conferences in my field (for example the IEEE and IEE). If I do get a paper published in such a conference then I can always leave those pages in the Published Papers section blank, or insert a caustic message pointing the reader at The Right to Read. But that is by the wayside.

If I were to simply state on the cover that I hold the copyright, would that grant the right for others to distribute electronic and printed copies or must I specify this explicitly?

Forwarded reply, posted 3 May 2001 at 19:18 UTC by dirtyrat » (Journeyer)

BlaisePascal wrote, via email:

Preface: I am not a lawyer, nor do I have any experience with the legal system of the UK. My comments are based on my purely amateur understanding of US Copyright laws and related Copyright Treaties. If you really need legal advice, contact appropriate legal council familiar with the law in your jurisdiction.

According to the boilerplate you published, nobody can do anything more than borrow it for consultation from the University Library without your written permission.

This is, at least in the US, pretty standard Copyright stuff. You have full control over how people copy, distribute, and derive other copyrightable works from your work. Anyone who wants to do anything with it must have your explicit or implicit permission, in writing preferrably.

On the otherhand, it's easy to grant that permission, in writing. Simply do something like add to that boiler plate (which merely asserts that -you- have to grant permission, no one else) a written statement that grants the permissions you want to grant. Something like:

Distribution and Use License: Gary Benson grants you a non-exclusive, royalty-free license to copy, publish, or otherwise distribute this thesis in any format as long as the text of this work is included complete and intact, including this licence, and proper attribution is made to Gary Benson as the author of this thesis. Gary Benson grants you a non-exclusive, royalty-free license to copy, publish, modify, and/or use the TeX style-sheets used to create this thesis in their own writings.

That may not be exactly what you want, but you should get the idea.

Again, run it by your local legal advisor, don't take my word for it.

Another forwarded reply, posted 8 May 2001 at 08:49 UTC by dirtyrat » (Journeyer)

GJF wrote, via email:

I think grib and BlaisePascal were correct in suggesting you have the right to define the terms under which you distribute your thesis. If you later decided to liberalise those terms you could do that too by attaching whatever agreeement you liked to the copy on your web site (disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer either and NZ law differs from US copyright law too).

I think you raise an important question facing the academic world. Copyright is based on the belief that giving authors exclusive economic rights over a work will encourage them to write and publish. Interestingly, academic publishing is (usually) undertaken, not specifically for earning royalties, but for the standing it gives in the academic community. Universities supposedly base their employment and advancement policies on the success their staff have in academic publishing.

In the past, academic journals have provided for peer review and cost-effective distribution of academic writing. But now that the Internet makes publishing as easy as pasting text into a form on Advogato, the old academic publishing system is becoming a hinderance to researchers. We are coming to expect instant access to the information through the Internet - rather than waiting for it to arrive in the mail. We also want to use familiar Internet search engines for finding information...

If the authors are not expecting to be paid, and the cost of publishing on the Internet are minimal, the missing link is peer review. Strangely enough, that is where Advogato and slashdot are leading lights. Maybe we will start to see academic journals recast as web sites in the Advogato model?

Either way, I hope we will see fundamental change in academic publishing fairly soon. I'd like to see academic research more accessible on the Internet and I'm also concerned that the authors of theses and dissertations should be able to publish these freely if they wish. I'm pretty sure that copyright on my thesis is held by the university. Maybe we need a special GNU Academic Writing Licence?

Consider the DSL, posted 17 May 2001 at 01:54 UTC by claviola » (Master)

The Design Free License might be of interest for you. From http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/license-list.html:

Licenses For Works Besides Software and Documentation

The Design Science License

This is a free and copyleft license meant for general data, not particularly for software.

Note, though, that the GNU GPL can be used for general data which is not software, as long as one can determine what the definition of "source code" refers to in the particular case. As it turns out, the DSL also requires that you determine what the "source code" is, using approximately the same definition that the GPL uses.

I've read the license, it seems pretty interesting for researchers and scientists that are pro-free software.

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