Copyright, Fair Use, and Dissertation Embargoes

This weeks readings discussed in various ways how limitations to the dissemination of information impacts the historical profession. Such issues as copyright, fair use, and dissertation embargoes have significant impacts on the historians–especially the digital historian. As Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig show in their chapter, copyright not only has a complicated history, but is complicated in itself. We frequently assume that all works after 1923 are under copyright, but that is not necessarily so. It was not until 1976 that copyrights were automatically renewed, and many did not renew their copy right, or they did not make notice of the copy right (which was necessary until 1989. This should be of some hope for twentieth-century historians. There are must be many books out there that they can utilize that have fallen out of copyright for those reasons.

More importantly, however, historians should take advantage of fair use. From the readings, we really ought to treat fair use like sick days: if you don’t use it, you lose it. According to Aufderheide, Jaszi, Bello and Melosevic, Our lack of understanding of fair use has led to many studies being changed or abandoned all together. I think this is most pertinent when it comes to studies of the visual arts, but it does influence other scholars as well.

I was most fascinated with the readings on dissertation embargoes. I found the outrage against the AHA statement rather interesting. I think much of the visceral comments came from a position that saw the embargo as another means by which information can be cut off from consumers in a similar way as the massively long copyrights discussed in Cohen and Rosenzweig. I think that the side of the debate against allowing PhD students to embargo dissertations are trying to make open access scholarship the default for the academy. The only problem that I see with such an approach is that they essentially are exploiting the least powerful members of the profession to do so.  It is easy to force others to disseminate their hard work in the hope that either university presses will publish the revised copies nevertheless or that tenure review will be transformed away from the central piece being the monograph. I am not against posting dissertations through Proquest, but I am against forcing graduate students to do so. I think it is important to indicate here that I do not necessarily intend to embargo my dissertation, so this is not a self-interested argument.

I find the argument that the ideas of a dissertation in Proquest are more likely to be stolen unpersuasive. Ideas can always be stolen–either from conferences, articles, or traditionally published books. But unlike in a conference, if the dissertation is on Proquest, it is much easier to point to the piece of plagiarism since it is out there. Moreover, there is no copyright protection for ideas, as Cohen and Rosenzweig show, so the public dissertation has as much protection as the published book

My whole reasoning for supporting the ability of the student to embargo his/her dissertation has to do with the publication of a revised dissertation into a book–a necessary condition for tenure at most schools. Digitized dissertations may, however, impact the ability of a scholar to turn it into a book. Even if the number of presses that will avoid such typescripts are small, it will still influence some careers. Perhaps, when universities begin forcing their professors to digitize their pre-print typescripts and make them available, it will be fair to do the same to those professor’s students. Of course this is a tongue-in-cheek statement, since it will not happen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *