How to license academic works?
Posted 3 May 2001 at 12:18 UTC by dirtyrat
Many's the time when I've been thoroughly annoyed whilst trying to get
hold of academic papers and theses only to find that they have
distribution terms that are so badly worded that they are verging on the
draconian. Often electronic distribution is if not forbidden then not
explicitly permitted and I've had to wait for a paper/film copy to
arrive from another library. I'm currently embarking on writing my PhD
and, although I'm not so vain as to expect that anyone would
want to read it, I want to ensure that people aren't
needlessly restricted from doing so. How do I spare future researchers
from this inconvenience?
The copyright message that is traditionally attached to theses from my
lab goes as follows:
Attention is drawn to the fact that copyright of this thesis rests
with its author. This copy of the thesis has been supplied on
condition that anyone who consults it is understood to recognise
that its copyright rests with its author and that no quotation
from the thesis and no information derived from it may be
published without the prior written consent of the author.
This thesis may be made available for consultation within
the University Library and may be photocopied or lent to other
libraries for the purposes of consultation.
The second paragraph is the one I particularly dislike:
it seems rather specific as to what you are allowed to do
with it, and almost implies a terminal ``No other uses of this
thesis are allowed''. My other problem is with the ``...no
quotation ... and no information derived from it may be
published without the prior written consent of the author.''
Surely this defeats the point of a published thesis, or have I misread
After some consideration, I don't feel that the GFDL is relevant to
something like a thesis: it isn't a document that will ever
evolve, but rather a work of reference upon which others may
build upon. With this in mind, granting the right for others to modify
it seems wrong. I don't, however, wish to inhibit people from converting
it from one file format to another and I have no problems with people
having the TeX build tree or indeed using the style files that I have
written for their own work.
What, in short, should I do about this?
At most US universities, the copyright to theses and dissertations is
owned by the university, not the student; generally you have to sign a
copyright disclaimer form before publication of the thesis. For the
most part, the license terms are typical book-publishing terms: fair use
and that's it.
Total sidetrack about the clusterf**k that is in the
process of hitting academic publishing.... ok, I choked it back.
If you own the copyright, you can use whatever license you want.
Sounds like what you want is to allow people to (1) use and distribute
the text of your dissertation widely, but keep it intact and keep your
authorship information attached and (2) use and change your
"infrastructure" (style files, any build system you might have, LaTeX
tricks, etc) in whatever way they want.
Seems like you could say this pretty straightforwardly in a license
that you attach to the document; just include language that separates
the textual content of the dissertation from the formatting/typesetting
information. You can de facto make your work widely distributable by
hanging it off your web pages somewhere, regardless of what the license
says. People *will* download and print it if you point
them at it, and if you own the copyright there's nobody else that has
standing to take any action about it but you. Make it a print-only
format like postscript if you're concerned about people boosting the text.
I originally thought that the cited copyright message was some kind of
University of Bath one, but it seems that people here put whatever they
on the front. It seems that in the majority of cases this happens
without conscious thought.
Regardless of this, the copyright on the thesis is wholly my own, as is
the copyright on both my published papers although this is not the case
on most conferences in my field (for example the IEEE and IEE). If I do get a paper published in
such a conference then I can always leave those pages in the Published
Papers section blank, or insert a caustic message pointing the reader at
The Right to
Read. But that is by the wayside.
If I were to simply state on the cover that I hold the copyright, would
that grant the right for others to distribute electronic and printed
copies or must I specify this explicitly?
Forwarded reply, posted 3 May 2001 at 19:18 UTC by dirtyrat »
wrote, via email:
Preface: I am not a lawyer, nor do I have any experience with the legal
system of the UK. My comments are based on my purely amateur
of US Copyright laws and related Copyright Treaties. If you really need
legal advice, contact appropriate legal council familiar with the law in
According to the boilerplate you published, nobody can do anything more
than borrow it for consultation from the University Library without your
This is, at least in the US, pretty standard Copyright stuff. You have
full control over how people copy, distribute, and derive other
copyrightable works from your work. Anyone who wants to do anything
it must have your explicit or implicit permission, in writing
On the otherhand, it's easy to grant that permission, in writing.
do something like add to that boiler plate (which merely asserts that
have to grant permission, no one else) a written statement that grants
permissions you want to grant. Something like:
Distribution and Use License: Gary Benson grants you a non-exclusive,
royalty-free license to copy, publish, or otherwise distribute this
in any format as long as the text of this work is included complete and
intact, including this licence, and proper attribution is made to Gary
Benson as the author of this thesis. Gary Benson grants you a
non-exclusive, royalty-free license to copy, publish, modify, and/or use
the TeX style-sheets used to create this thesis in their own writings.
That may not be exactly what you want, but you should get the idea.
Again, run it by your local legal advisor, don't take my word for it.
wrote, via email:
I think grib and BlaisePascal were
correct in suggesting you have the right to define the terms under which
you distribute your thesis. If you later decided to liberalise those
terms you could do that too by attaching whatever agreeement you liked
to the copy on your web site (disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer either and NZ
law differs from US copyright law too).
I think you raise an important question facing the academic world.
Copyright is based on the belief that giving authors exclusive economic
rights over a work will encourage them to write and publish.
Interestingly, academic publishing is (usually) undertaken, not
specifically for earning royalties, but for the standing it gives in the
academic community. Universities supposedly base their employment and
advancement policies on the success their staff have in academic
In the past, academic journals have provided for peer review and
cost-effective distribution of academic writing. But now that the
Internet makes publishing as easy as pasting text into a form on
Advogato, the old academic publishing system is becoming a hinderance to
researchers. We are coming to expect instant access to the information
through the Internet - rather than waiting for it to arrive in the mail.
We also want to use familiar Internet search engines for finding
If the authors are not expecting to be paid, and the cost of publishing
Internet are minimal, the missing link is peer review. Strangely
enough, that is where Advogato and slashdot are leading lights. Maybe we
will start to see academic journals recast as web sites in the Advogato
Either way, I hope we will see fundamental change in academic publishing
fairly soon. I'd like to see academic research more accessible on the
Internet and I'm
also concerned that the authors of theses and dissertations should be
publish these freely if they wish. I'm pretty sure that copyright on my
is held by the university. Maybe we need a special GNU Academic Writing
The Design Free License
might be of interest for you. From http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/license-list.html:
Licenses For Works Besides Software and Documentation
The Design Science License
This is a free and copyleft license meant for general data, not
particularly for software.
Note, though, that the GNU GPL can be used for general data which is
not software, as long as one can determine what the definition of
"source code" refers to in the particular case. As it turns out, the DSL
also requires that you determine what the "source code" is, using
approximately the same definition that the GPL uses.
I've read the license, it seems pretty interesting for researchers and
scientists that are pro-free software.