Thursday, February 14, 2008


I'm having a form of buyer's remorse, I think. Maybe. I've been "trying on" the dissertation topic I reported in my last post, talking about it with everyone I can, anyone who'll listen, and everyone seems to think it's ok, that is, it will work, ca marche. But ca marche is like lukewarm. It's the same problem I encountered last semester -- how on earth can I work on a problem for 18 months that I'm only lukewarm about in its most expansive form, knowing that by the time I get it down to an actual researchable question, it will be deader than a doornail. So my mind has begun to wander. I've spent the last 5 days entertaining other ideas, pretty much any idea that pops into my head. Mostly these ideas come from daily events. Something happens, a conversation, a story I read, a project from work I'm involved in, and suddenly, I'm thinking, "hey, this might make a much more interesting, and just maybe, more important and meaningful subject for my dissertation."

So far, these ideas have played out with similar endings: "Naah, stick with the monograph interface thing. It's going to be more interesting." But then yesterday I came up with one that really seems compelling, one that I feel that I really should do, not just because I find it interesting. It started with a talk I listened to the day before yesterday at a class I attended. Lynn Westbrook (iSchool faculty member) was our guest for my Dissertation Research and Theory class and her focus is the information needs of women in crisis -- the crisis of coming to grips with spousal abuse, though they don't call it that anymore. It's been generalized to anyone you're intimately involved with who is abusive. The first question I asked her was why she had gotten involved in this area of research. Our prof admitted to being reticent to ask that, for fear that the answer was too personal. But for me, this was the most important question, because Lynn works on something that, though it's horrifying for me to even contemplate that it exists at all, let alone to work in that field, her work is going to make a concrete difference to real people. Right now. And tomorrow. And the next day.

Now, her topic is not my topic. I just can't go there. But there are things that mean something to *me* and I can find a topic that is more important than some marginal improvement in how people interact with scholarly literature (at best!). Besides, the scholarly community is either going to figure this out or not, and frankly, the absolute best I might have realistically hoped for was just to create some kind of demo that would be criticized and rejected, or worse, ignored, no matter what its stats suggested, if anything at all. How many research reports have I read about really cool interface or knowledge management or other software ideas that were reported 10 years ago or so, and when I googled them to see where they were today -- nada. They were never followed up on, never built upon. They just didn't make a difference.

I have been steadfastly avoiding choosing a topic that centered on copyright. Everyone expects me to do copyright. I was soooo tired of it when I started this program that for the first year I just avoided it entirely. Now I've seen it creeping in around the edges of things I'm doing, and this semester I've realized that it is an important part of what's happening in scholarly communication (duh, I know) even an interesting part. And I had planned to tie whatever I did in with the mass digitization/business model/free content effect on reliance on copyright (ie, the premise of Mass Digitization, as one part of the story of moving scholarly monographic content to the web), BUT yesterday I realized that there's something more important, more fundamental, and something I may also not be able to really make a difference in, but I should try. I'm better qualified to try to do this than to try to come up with a better monographic interface.

In less than 9 years, we ARE, *are* are going to see another extension to the term of copyright. The curtain on the public domain is going to ossify at 1923. That's 9 years for anyone who thinks this is not a good thing to get our butts in gear and see if a case can be made for the economic value of a public domain. The case for the economic value of eternal protection (forever minus a day, as they say to avoid the Constitutional "problem" of limited times) will be easy to make. It will be beyond obvious (and it will be massively funded by its proponents). Further, the harm from eternal protection will not be obvious as it gets easier to locate copyright owners and get their permission for uses of their works, as orphans are identified, as transaction costs drop to zero and, ironically, as the value of [individual items of] content itself drops to zero.

Although licenses are displacing copyright as the determiner of our rights to access and use others' works, it's just a transition. Licensing is a double-edged sword, but there it is. At least there's the possibility of balance (ie, licenses can be used to lock things down, or to shed excessive rights and even to limit the term or abandon it altogether). But in the mid- to long-term mass digitization and the enormous corpus of web content are pushing abandonment of reliance on copyright, and even on licenses. The price of content is headed to zero. If you don't need to be compensated for its use, then what difference does it make if content is protected or not. The bundle will devolve down to attribution and maybe some limited commercial translation/adaptation right. But what's to keep people from making the argument that with a functionally trimmed down copyright, and friction-less access to the transfer of rights, copyright's danger to the pd is diminished, so what's there to worry about in extending the term of the rights of those who do in fact reap a large economic benefit from exclusively exploiting their properties? On the other hand, will people like that exist in 9 years? Can we imagine a time when Disney won't care about protecting Mickey anymore? Fundamentally, should he be able to protect Mickey as long as Mickey makes money?

Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it is ok for the Internet to eliminate the need for a public domain. But if it's not ok, we have 9 years to make the case and find the funding to match Disney's to present the case to Congress. Otherwise, au revoir, la fin de la fable.

So, is there a dissertation topic in there? How is it an iSchool dissertation and not just a copyright dissertation? I guess I'll think about it for a couple of days.

1 comment:

khlawrence said...

I found your blog through Cathy Davidson's blogroll. As a university press editorial, design, and production manager and former library student, I can assure you that if you're not really, really interested in scholarly publishing and digital scholarly publishing you'll be bored pretty quicky. I'm very interested in digital scholarship, and especially in figuring out how libraries and presses can work together, but in terms of research you'll find the same thing over and over and you'll find that press staff members are mixed about their interest in digital scholarship, some unwelcome, some just too bogged down with daily work to figure out how to make time to figure things out. That said, if you go with this topic feel free to ask me for help with understanding university press culture and day-to-day operations.