Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Turow vs Everyone

According to celebrated author, lawyer, and president of the Author's Guild Scott Turow, the legal and technological erosion of copyright endangers writers. (New York Times, April 7th, 2013) His enemy list is conspiratorial in length and breadth. It includes the Supreme Court, publishers, search engines, the Hathi trust, Google, academics, libraries, and Amazon. Nevertheless, Turow makes compelling arguments that deserve scrutiny.

The Supreme Court decision on re-importation. (Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.)
This 6-3 decision merely reaffirmed the first sale doctrine. It is highly unlikely that this will significantly affect book prices in the US. If it does, any US losses will be offset by price increases in foreign markets. More importantly, the impact will be negligible because paper books will soon be a niche market in the US.

Publishers restrict royalties on e-books.
Publishers who manage the technology shift by making minor business adjustments, such as transferring costs to authors, libraries, and consumers, underestimate the nature of current changes. Traditional publishers built their business when disseminating information was difficult. Once they built their dissemination channels, making money was relatively easy. In our current world, building dissemination channels is easy and cheap. Making money is difficult. Authors may need new partners who built their business in the current environment; there are some in his list of enemies.

Search engines make money of referring users to pirate sites.
Turow has a legitimate moral argument. However, politicizing search engines by censoring search results is as wrong as it is ineffective. Pirate sites also spread through social networks. Cutting off pirate sites from advertizing networks, while effective, is difficult to achieve across international borders and requires unacceptable controls on information exchange. iTunes and its competitors have shown it is possible to compete with pirate sites by providing a convenient user interface, speed, reliability, quality, and protection against computer viruses.

The Hathi trust and Google scanned books without authorization.
Hathi and Google were careless. Authors and publishers were rigid. Experimentation gave way to litigation.

Some academics want to curtail copyright.
Scholarly publishers like Elsevier have profit margins that exceed 30%. Yet, Turow claims that “For many academics today, their own copyrights hold little financial value because scholarly publishing has grown so unprofitable.”

Academics' research is often funded in part by government, and it is always supported by universities. Universities have always been committed to research openness, and they use published research as means for assessment. This is why academics forego royalties when they publish research. The concept of research openness is changing, and many academics are lobbying for the idea that research should be freely available to all. The idea of Open Access was recently embraced by the White House. Open Access applies only to researchers funded by the government and/or employed by participating universities and research labs. It only covers research papers, not books. It does not apply to independent authors. Open Access does not curtail copyright.

Legal academics like Prof. Lawrence Lessig have argued for stricter limits on traditional copyright and alternative copyrights. Pressured by industry lobbyists, Congress has repeatedly increased the length of copyright. If this trend continues, recent works may never enter into the public domain. Legislation must balance authors' intellectual property rights and everyone's (including authors') freedom to produce derivative works, commentaries, parodies, etc.

Amazon patents a scheme to re-sell used e-books.
This patent is a misguided attempt to monetize the human frailty of carrying familiar concepts from old technology senselessly into the new. It is hardly the stuff that made this forward-looking company formidable.

Libraries expand paper lending into digital lending.
Turow demands more money from libraries for digital lending privileges. He is too modest; he should demand their whole budget.

When a paper-based library acquires a book, it permanently increases the value of its collection. This cumulative effect over many years created the world's great collections. When a community spends resources on a digital-lending library, it rents information from publishers and provides a fleeting service for only as long as the licenses last. When the license ends, the information disappears. There is no cumulative effect. That digital-lending library only adds overhead. It will never own or contribute new information. It is an empty shell.

Digital lending is popular with the public. It gives librarians the opportunity to transition gradually into digital space. It continues the libraries' billion-dollar money stream to publishers. Digital lending have a political constituency, but it does not stand up to rational scrutiny. Like Amazon's scheme to resell used e-books, digital-lending programs are desperate attempts to hang on to something that simulates the status quo.

Lending is the wrong paradigm for the digital age. Instead, libraries should use their budgets to accumulate quality open-access information. They should sponsor qualified authors to produce open-access works of interest to the communities they serve. This would give authors a choice. They could either produce their work commercially behind a pay wall, or they could produce library-funded open-access works.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Calculus for Jocks

In 1983, I taught my first course. The teaching assistants called it “Calculus for Poets”, but the incident I remember is about a basketball player. It gave me a glimpse into the mindset of college athletics departments in the US, and it cemented my opinion that competitive sports do not belong on campus.

I had come to the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University a year earlier. Being on a computer-science research fellowship, I did not teach that first year. After switching into the mathematics department, I was a teaching assistant for one year, and I was assigned the Calculus undergraduate course.

Near the end of the first term, the basketball coach came, unannounced, to my (shared) office. He explained that this student athlete, while not a star player, was very important to the team. If the student failed calculus, his Grade Point Average (GPA) would be too low to continue on the team. This would surely hurt the team, and he needed my help.

The coach promised to work with the student in the second term and make up for the failed first term if I would just give him a passing grade now. According to the coach, this wasn't really dishonest. After all, this was calculus not history: When you fail a term of history, you have not learned what happened in a particular era, and you cannot make it up without taking that term over again. However, if you succeed in the second term of calculus after failing the first term, you really have made up your lack of knowledge of the first term, because you could not succeed in the second term without making up the knowledge you missed in the failed first term. So, I should let him pass now in anticipation of second-term success.

I had been in the US long enough to have heard about the power of coaches on campuses, and I told him I would think about it. I immediately walked over to the office of the faculty member overseeing the course. He was not available, but I described the incident to his secretary, and I asked to schedule an appointment. The appointment never materialized. Instead, I received a short note to handle the situation as I saw fit.

I felt badly about being brushed off like that. With the passing of time, it feels even stranger than it did at the time. The Courant Institute was an extremely social place. Graduate students and faculty mingled in the 13th floor lounge every day for coffee breaks and lunch. Courant faculty took their graduate students seriously, and I do not remember any other incident where a faculty member was dismissive of my concerns. Yet, in this case, a faculty member refused to examine a matter that could easily have mushroomed into something serious. In retrospect, I suspect the supervising faculty member may have been affiliated with the School of Arts and Sciences and not the Courant Institute. This would explain why I do not remember his name or face and why I have no recollection of ever meeting him, even for an orientation session.

I had to deal with the coach on my own. After another meeting, I did not give the student a passing grade, but I acquiesced to the next request from the coach. I let the student drop the course. NYU’s rules allowed for late drops, provided they were approved by the instructor. By dropping the course, the student barely satisfied the GPA requirement. Unfortunately for the team and fortunately for the student, his grades did not satisfy the parental requirement. After seeing his son’s results, the student's father stepped in. He pressured his son to stop playing basketball and start studying. The student newspaper lamented this turn of events.

This was a small incident. Many much worse incidents occur every day on every campus. Yet, NYU basketball was, and remains, a small-time program (NCAA Division III). In 2010, the Wall Street Journal thought NYU is neglecting its basketball program and should raise more money for it. A student athlete on this team, no matter how good a player, has absolutely no prospects to play professionally after college. Yet, this coach thought it totally justified to sacrifice the player's education for a few team wins.

I can only imagine what happens at a university that participates in NCAA Division I, where top players have more realistic hopes for a pot of gold at the end of their college career. Does that justify a fraudulent degree? I can only imagine how the coach of such a team deals with lowly teaching assistants, instructors, and assistant professors. His multi-million dollar paycheck, which far exceeds the paycheck of the university’s president, depends on a winning record. Given where his incentives are, how much does that coach care about his or her players and their education?

One of my fellow teaching assistants explained the system at his alma mater, a top research university in NCAA Division I. On the books, athletes took identical courses with identical numbers and the same number of credits. Somehow, they would be enrolled in special sections held at times and in locations that fit the athletes’ schedules. These sections were not listed in the catalog and unavailable to regular students. Were those sections just as hard? Were they graded on an athlete's curve? No one knew, not even the athletes. This old rumor may carry no weight as evidence, but it shows how easy it is to fix things. With millions of dollars on the line, do you trust that everyone will act ethically all the time?