Fun With Intellectual Property Issues, No. 340 in a Series: Aluka

Regular readers have heard me complain before about the straight-up weirdness of the way the cost of research falls on institutions of higher education. Universities directly or indirectly subsidize faculty to carry out research through a variety of means: sabbaticals, teaching loads that are designed to allow time to do research and dissemination of results, support for laboratory or travel costs, and so on. So faculty carry out their research and then often give it away for free or virtually so to a publisher. The value-added of many academic publications comes from peer review, which mostly (again) faculty do for free. (E.g., another use of labor time supported by universities.)

The publishers then sell the product back to the universities at a high cost. Tell me, what’s wrong with this picture?

Once upon a time, the publishers could justify this economy with reference to the expenses of publication. That’s still true for books, but with journal articles, conference papers, archival materials and so on, I don’t see the cost argument any longer. With the advent of digital technologies, the costs to publishers can be much smaller than they once were, and many of the costs which do exist are start-up costs rather than ongoing. There’s a reasonably good existing format (.pdf). The publisher needs to pay only for storage, preparation of material, a bit of copyediting, coordination of the peer review process, and an interface design for the materials. Even the costs of online accessibility and storage could be cut radically if the publisher disseminated a local copy of the publication to all archives and libraries wanting a copy, as opposed to serving it from a central location.

So with all this in mind, I’m trying to decide how I feel about a recent request from the Aluka archive for transcripts of interviews or other primary materials I’ve generated in my life as an Africanist scholar. Right now, I’m feeling pretty dubious about the request, and I’d like to see what other people with an active interest in intellectual property issues think about it. (Paging Lawrence Lessig and Siva Vaidhyanathan.)

Here’s my issue: they’re asking me and many other scholars to donate primary material for digitization. They are a non-profit, and their start-up has been funded by the Mellon Foundation. (Aluka is actually a project of Ithaka, the people behind JSTOR and ArtSTOR.) However, they’re intending to charge institutions outside of Africa a vendor fee for access to the archive that they’re going to create. From what I can see, they aren’t claiming any kind of expansive intellectual property rights over donated material, but neither is this a strict Creative Commons-type license. I’m also fairly alarmed by my reading of one point in the FAQ, which seems to imply that people who donate materials will have right of veto over even fair-use quotations of donated materials by other researchers, but I may be misunderstanding what’s meant. (See the second to last question in the FAQ.)

I’m also vaguely concerned that the definitions of relevant material in reference some of the archive’s goals may be more tightly or ideologically drawn than I myself would approve of, but that may be an unfair apprehension on my part. I do think I tend to think that one thing that’s important for understanding the history of struggle in colonial and postcolonial Africa is calling into question the terms and nature of “struggle”, and questioning whether in fact colonialism in Africa was as totalizing a phenomenon as some of the historiography has taken it to be. That view would probably lead me to think that almost anything belongs in the archive that Aluka is building. I wonder if some of the scholars most involved in the project might think otherwise.

I guess I don’t know why I should donate transcripts of interviews or other primary materials I’ve collected or created to an entity that’s going to turn around and charge my institution a vendor fee (that could well become more expensive over time) in order to access those materials in digital form. I don’t want to make money from this material, except by writing about it (and that’s a very small amount of money), but neither do I want to end up costing my own institution money for others to use something I’m willing to give away for free.

This seems to me to be precisely one of those moments where universities should be banding together under a single umbrella consortium to cut out all the middlemen. It’s one thing when you’re digitizing journals that were long since published (JSTOR, for example). That intellectual property cow got out of the barn a long time ago. Universities don’t own those rights, they just own copies of the journals. It’s another thing to allow the creation of a completely new digital archive out of material whose ownership status is completely open, and whose creation was heavily subsidized by academic institutions. Maybe this is just semantics on my part, that the difference between paying into a consortial effort to build an archive and paying a fee to a vendor who has done the same is no difference at all. Both cost a university something. If the second costs less, then maybe it’s preferable. Sometimes it makes more sense fiscally to rent rather than own.

But ownership isn’t just a matter of money. I do think there’s a big difference between a project to which you belong as a participant and a project that is external to your institution, a difference that is one part about the ethics of information and one part about the pragmatic desire to avoid being taken hostage at a later date by a vendor who owns a service that you have become dependent upon.

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7 Responses to Fun With Intellectual Property Issues, No. 340 in a Series: Aluka

  1. jfruh says:

    …a bit of copyediting…

    As a side note to this discussion: I am a freelance copy editor, among other things, mostly working with tech and IT-related stuff, but I have an MA in history from my abortive academic career that I’ve always been itching to do something with that would make me feel like those five semesters weren’t totally wasted. I once met the editor of a medieval studies journal and was quite keen on doing freelance work for them — even would have been willing to take a pay cut — until I found out that they paid in … copies of the journal.

    The editorial costs are probably largely nil, is what I’m saying.

  2. emschwar says:

    I’m as confused as you are, reading the Aluka FAQ. It sounds like you can use the material for educational or research purposes, but not in a publication. But how, exactly, is publishing an article NOT “educational or research purposes”? If you had by some stroke of fate been asked to write an article for, I don’t know, Harper’s or some such, okay, but I see why you’re wary.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    If you read the Terms and Conditions, it seems to make clear that what is meant by that passage in the FAQ is that you are prohibited from reproducing the whole of a document without permission of the copyright holder, not from fair use quotation. But it’s still an odd wording in the FAQ.

  4. I don’t think it’s possible to completely cut out the middle men if you’re going to create a resource made from the work of many contributors. Cataloging, editing, distribution are all very valuable parts of any information project, and they don’t come free.

    If you think the resulting archive would be of value to you and others, then you’re probably not going to come by a more honest, and low-cost middleman than a Mellon-funded project. (And this said by somebody who gave them a lot of grief about their early iterations of ArtStor.)

    If there’s anything odd about the licensing terms, chances are they’re that way because some really important IP holder insisted on specific terms. That’s certainly true about some of the terms that were involved in the earlier projects (JStor, ArtStor).

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Probably. But really, why not a comprehensive consortium of academic institutions, rather than something like Ithaka? Something wholly inside our institutional world, rather than proximate to it? Something whose first and last charge in perpetuity is the dissemination of knowledge rather than control over dissemination?

    Or, alternatively, why shouldn’t I just put links to .pdfs of interview transcripts off of a weblog or college server, under a Creative Commons license, and urge all scholars in a given field to do the same? I can think of some pressing reasons not to do so: the non-standardization of formats and archival information that would result, the uneven vetting of documents which might introduce active fraud or distortion that would be difficult to track down, the unreliability of finding a given source at the same location after citing and using it, and so on.

    But thinking about that possibility reminds me that: a) distribution can be close to free, and in some media or some contexts, is effectively free. b) editing in this case is, or could be, almost entirely on the side of the researchers. I don’t think they’re prepared to deal with donations of raw and unedited tapes, for example, though I could be wrong. c) Cataloging is getting close to free if you give pride of place to folksonomies and have vigorous search architectures.

    I’m just wondering why we so quickly accept the peculiarities here. Why should we bear the costs of creating information and then the costs of consuming information as well? How long would a business that had an R&D division which then gave away all its R&D to someone else and then bought back the results at high cost survive? There are some examples of that (XeroxPARC and its many early innovations) but they’re not exactly seen as great moments in the history of innvoation.

    If we’re looking for an in-between, how about this: why not something rather like the logic of a peer-to-peer network as an incentive to donation? Set a minimum level of donation and a minimum standardized format for an archival donation (standard metadata, standard format) that the researcher is responsible for preparing. That donation gives the institution and the researcher free access to the archive in question for X years (5, 10?) per unit of donated archival material. Broaden that out to records and archival documents in the public domain: any researcher willing to undertake transcription for free of such documents earns their institution access for a set length of time. Host and distribute these archives at all participating institutions so as to distribute those costs; the variant Creative Commons license in this case would specify that the hosting institution only has rights to host for the period of time that their donations of material permit. That would cut some of the bigger private vendors and publishers out of the racket of ransacking public records and historical archives, while also incentivizing the work of digitization further.

    About the only thing I get out of this donation at the moment is assisting institutions in Africa. To be honest, even with that, I’d like to see some reciprocity. Some universities in Africa aggressively help any and all researchers gain access to local materials; others do their best to impede or frustrate researchers. Aluka looks to me to be entirely quid and no quo, and I think academia is already suffering enormously from free give-aways of information to institutions who impede the free circulation of information and knowledge.

  6. evanroberts says:

    Stimulating discussion as always.

    There’s a couple of (possibly separate) issues here about intellectual property and the cost and funding of scholarship.

    (1) You’re right to be dubious about a “business” that approaches you for a donation of material that you’ve collected and organized, funded by someone else for which you won’t get anything in return. So it really is a donation, not an exchange.

    (2) Ownership does matter in cases like this. Is someone else going to out and create a duplicate to compete with Aluka? Not likely. But not impossible. Who’d have thought there would be multiple companies willing to digitize newspapers and census microfilm. But there are, and that’s possibly beneficial. It won’t work for digitizing “old stuff” for which there is not a Western genealogical interest.

    Anyway, the situation you are describing is a classic case of potential contractual “hold-up.” Aluka owns a very specific asset for which there is a very specific group of customers.

    (3) Large scale distribution of scholarly material has a different cost structure with the internet, but it ain’t free. The larger collections get, and the more you want to add features to save users time, the less free it’s going to be. Good programmers cost money, and good programmers who understand how to make a website work for academics are worth paying for.

  7. djeater says:

    This is part of Aluka’s project to provide online access to original material relating to the liberation wars in Southern Africa. Aluka doesn’t put all the burden onto the academics. It has funding dedicated work at Rhodes House in Oxford, for example, to identify suitable materials for digitisation. Aluka has also offered to digitise appropriate material from the Rhodesian Army Archive in Bristol, once it has been catalogued under a UK research grant.
    From my perspective, Aluka’s initiative is a wonderful contribution to southern African studies, in particular by making materials available within southern Africa that are currently deposited in the UK. There is an ‘Elgin marbles’ conversation to be had about these collections, but in the meantime digitisation is a form of repatriation.
    The case of oral materials is, of course, rather different. But I was very pleased to be approached by Aluka about oral materials because these are far less likely than archival documents to reach the public domain. There is an excellent collection of oral material in the National Archives in Zimbabwe, but it really does only represent the tip of an iceberg. I know that copyright issues are complicated, and it is important to get them right; but Aluka is supporting research by offering an effective means of dissemination to the academic community and beyond.
    Peer-to-peer networks put a lot of extra work onto academics. Moreover, many universities do not allow academics to post large amounts of material on their web spaces, because the servers aren’t big enough/new enough to cope. Especially in southern African universities. And Aluka provides a one-stop shop that’s easy for researchers from countries with slow internet speeds.

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