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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2000

The Buck Stops Here – E-Business Puts Theses Up for Sale

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a student of mine who follows the discussion of the Political Science Graduate Students' list-serve. It appears the National Library of Canada, that venerable institution to which I had made available my PhD dissertation, had, without my knowledge, one of its agents selling my work for profit on the Web. The insult was not purely personal. All of the dissertations produced by my colleagues were there, available at for quite a bit more than cost. None of us had given our permission for our work to be included on this site; in fact, none of us knew of its existence.

My understanding is that, when I signed my copyright agreement with the National Library, the purpose of this agreement was to make my work available at cost, and not for profit, to researchers and scholars who might be interested in it. From what I gather, the library is abdicating the responsibility that I, and many others, believed was entailed by the copyright agreements we signed at the time of our defense.

The library has, for many years, contracted Bell & Howell to make MA, MSc theses, and PhD dissertations available to scholars and researchers. Bell & Howell, in turn, has subcontracted this service to a company called UMI Dissertations Publishing. On July 31 of this year, the Contentville site was launched. It offers, for sale, and at a profit under an agreement with UMI, every Canadian MA and MSc thesis, and PhD dissertation, written in the past 12 years (and more). Contentville, an American company, is owned in part by Microsoft, CBS and NBC.

None of us who have our work included on the site have been asked for permission for our work to be included. The position of the library appears to be that the copyright agreement we all signed at the time of our defense licenses it or its agents to have our work sold, for profit, at a site like Contentville. And, according to the library, we are all entitled to royalties from UMI for copies of our work sold through Contentville, though nobody has explained how UMI is supposed to contact us, and none of us has personally negotiated any kind of agreement with UMI. To my knowledge, and after many inquiries, it's also not clear that any of us have the right to pull our work from the Contentville site.

How do I feel? Raped (which is an interesting word for a rather staid, not-necessarily-but maybe-feminist-scholar, to use). My dissertation cost me dearly and the notion that someone is out there making money off my work – and I don't care if it's 25 cents a year – without my consent, drives me nuts.

But there's a far more serious issue. The mandate of the library has been to keep this stuff available, at cost, to people who are interested. After all, the "stuff" has been largely paid for by taxpayers (as some of us have become) and is part of the cultural heritage of the nation. Given the propensity of government agencies to privatize whenever possible, what will happen to the public mandate for necessary, public archival services? Will there come a time when the library (and its agent, UMI) simply says, "It's available on the Web from private sources, and we don't need to do that any more"?

Right now, one can access Canadian research material in the form of MA, MSc, and PhD, theses and dissertations at cost. What will happen when a commercial site becomes the largest research and journalistic database on the Web? Will public institutions like the National Library bail out? It seems to me they have already begun to do so. What will the world be like when academic candidates have to pay Contentville $500 a hit for the information they require, and when that information is not available elsewhere? Slippery slope? Yup. But the Web, when it comes to intellectual property, has proven to be very slippery indeed.

The answer is surely not legal proceedings – unless someone's ready to come forward with a few million bucks. We are, after all, talking about Microsoft, NBC and CBS, along with a fairly open-ended copyright agreement. The answer is political. At a minimum, all universities in Canada should resolve to discourage MA, MSc and PhD candidates from signing over copyright rights to the National Library until this issue is resolved. And, if it cannot be resolved, perhaps the universities should form their own Web network, offering at cost the results of publicly funded MA, MSc and PhD work that is produced in Canada.

Anne Leavitt
Liberal Studies, Malaspina University College