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content is king—content creators
are (apparently) clowns
by ira nayman

I recently submitted my Ph.D. dissertation to McGill. It was mostly a happy time for me, but my joy was tempered by the knowledge that other people could soon be making money from my academic work.

There is a relatively new Web site called Contentville. It is a joint venture of Brill's Content, a print magazine devoted to a critique of journalism, and some of the biggest players in the media world, including CBS, NBC and Microsoft. Contentville offers a wide range of text-based works, including articles from respected magazines and Masters theses and Ph.D. dissertations. With respect to the latter, not only has Contentville not been compensating the students who wrote these works, but also it didn't even feel the need to let the students know that it was selling them. How did an American company end up selling the work of Canadian students without their knowledge? This is a complicated story, but it goes something like this: when a student submits her or his work to a university prior to graduating, the student must also supply a copy for the National Library of Canada (NLC). The NLC's purpose is to make academic work available to future researchers.

The NLC has an agreement with a company called UMI to sell theses and dissertations. A Company called Bell & Howell now owns UMI; this was the company that sold the academic work to Contentville. When students submit their work to their institution, they must sign a waiver allowing the NLC to distribute it on a non-exclusive basis (which means the student can distribute it, including selling it, him or herself in any other venue). The waiver also contains a clause saying that the NLC has the right to sell a student's work. This seems to allow them to contract UMI to sell it for them.

There are legal problems with this. The way I read the waiver form, for example, there is nothing in it that allows the NLC to contract third parties to sell my work. If they want to sell it directly, fine. If they ask somebody else to sell it for them, they are going beyond what I've agreed to. For another thing, it's not like I had a choice to sign the waiver form or not: it was a condition of my graduating from the university. Thus, it could be argued that I was coerced into signing away rights I wouldn't have given up had I been given a free choice in the matter.

The biggest problem with the way Contentville is selling academic work is moral. The biggest issue of the Internet these days is copyright control, the right of creators to be compensated for their work. Those involved with Contentville are heavily involved in this issue: NBC, for instance, was party to a lawsuit that shut down TV signal rebroadcaster iCraveTV, while Microsoft is a major player in organizations that attempt to enforce software copyrights throughout the world. So, while the major corporations argue for the importance of compensating creators for their work, they deny it to the individual writers who are the lifeblood of the medium.

This problem is not merely, if you'll forgive the expression, academic. For one thing, Contentville also sells the archives of major magazines, including The Village Voice. "'How the hell did they get our archives?' fumed David Schneiderman, CEO of Village Voice Media, upon learning that Contentville is selling hundreds of Voice articles, including the work of Michael Musto and Nat Hentoff along with that of scores of freelancers who retain the rights to their work." For another thing, this seems to be a trend: large corporations are trying to make money off the backs of individual writers. In the United States, in 1993, 10 freelance writers sued the New York Times and other publishers over the unauthorized publication of their work in electronic databases. In Canada, in September 1996, freelance writer Heather Robertson launched a $100-million class-action lawsuit against Thomson Corporation on behalf of any freelance writers, artists, and photographers who had sold works to the company and wanted to retain control over their electronic-publishing rights. These companies are claiming rights they have no moral justification to hold, then using their extensive legal muscle to fend off challenges which would force them to compensate the creators of original material.

Fortunately, they do not appear to be succeeding. Although the Times initially won its case, a higher court overturned that ruling, and it now seems likely that the newspaper will have to compensate its writers when it makes their work available online. Towards the end of 1999, Robertson's class action case was accepted, paving the way for Canadian courts to rule on this issue on behalf of all writers.

As for my little case, well, Contentville has agreed not to sell the work of any Canadian writer if the writer asks the company not to. This is not an acceptable solution. Ethically, it turns the rights a writer has in his or her work on their head: writers must give permission for their creations to be sold, not withhold their permission after somebody else had put their work on the market. (Imagine somebody selling your car, then asking if you wanted to get rid of it.) In addition, there is a practical problem: since most writers were not notified that their work was being sold, they did not know that they would have to contact the company to stop it.

The National Writer's Union in the United States has worked out a deal with Contentville to compensate writers; CanCopy, a national organization which collects compensation for creators, is currently negotiating a similar deal for Canadian writers. While this would solve the worst problem, individual writers may have reasons for not wanting their academic work to be sold online (for instance, it may make it harder for some writers to get the work published in print). An ideal deal would allow writers to opt out of allowing their work to be sold through online databases.

The press would have you believe that the worst copyright infringement occurring on the Internet is by lone hackers sitting at their computers. However, corporate owned and controlled newspapers and television news organizations are hardly disinterested parties in this story. It may turn out that individual writers (which, potentially, could be anybody) have more to fear from people in suits trailing phalanxes of lawyers.

REFERENCES: If you would like to do your own reading on the issue of writers not being compensated when their work appears in corporate databases, check out the following links.

Corrigan, Anne Marie. "Freelance writers struggle for rights." ThunderbirdMagazine UBC (V2 I3, January/February 2000).

Cotts, Cynthia. Partners in Copyright Scam." Village Voice (July 26 - August 1, 2000).

Goldberg, Kim. "Taking on Newspaper Chains." 1996.

Reid, Calvin. "Brill Meet to Resolve Contentville Dispute." Publisher's Weekly (July 31, 2000).

_______. "'NYT' Looks to High Court After Appellate Rebuff." Publisher's Weekly (April 17, 2000).

CORRECTION: Liss Jeffrey is still an Adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto's McLuhan Centre. I had mistakenly retired her in a previous article. I regret the error.

Copyright © 2000 Ira Nayman. All Rights Reserved

Ira Nayman has submitted his dissertation to McGill and is now looking for something disreputable to do with his life.

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