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The Perils of Strong Copyright

CC chart

For all the talk that the American Library Association does in regards to Open Access and freely available information, here’s the truth of the matter. A chart showing how a few ALA publications compare to Creative Commons licenses. For a full explanation, read the paper. Chapters 4 and 5 and the Conclusion have the real evidence in them. HTML version forthcoming.

By griffey

Jason Griffey is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at NISO, where he works to identify new areas of the information ecosystem where standards expertise is useful and needed. Prior to joining NISO in 2019, Jason ran his own technology consulting company for libraries, has been both an Affiliate at metaLAB and a Fellow and Affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and was an academic librarian in roles ranging from reference and instruction to Head of IT at the University of TN at Chattanooga.

Jason has written extensively on technology and libraries, including multiple books and a series of full-periodical issues on technology topics, most recently AI & Machine Learning in Libraries and Library Spaces and Smart Buildings: Technology, Metrics, and Iterative Design from 2018. His newest book, co-authored with Jeffery Pomerantz, will be published by MIT Press in 2024.

He has spoken internationally on topics such as artificial intelligence & machine learning, the future of technology and libraries, decentralization and the Blockchain, privacy, copyright, and intellectual property. A full list of his publications and presentations can be found on his CV.
He is one of eight winners of the Knight Foundation News Challenge for Libraries for the Measure the Future project (, an open hardware project designed to provide actionable use metrics for library spaces. He is also the creator and director of The LibraryBox Project (, an open source portable digital file distribution system.

Jason can be stalked obsessively online, and spends his free time with his daughter Eliza, reading, obsessing over gadgets, and preparing for the inevitable zombie uprising.

35 replies on “The Perils of Strong Copyright”


I have just had the pleasure of reading your Masters Dissertation. It was a most interesting premise and I found your final line “It is important that the ALA does not stand idle as its own intellectual content goes up in flames” refreshingly simple when considering the complexity of language in the majority of Information Science Journals.

I am finishing my own Masters degree in Information and Library Management at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK at the moment and I can well appreciate the effort which must have gone into this work.

I am a little curious on one point though, the word length of this dissertation is only about 11,000. Is this not a little short? Here in the UK we must, at a minimum, submit 17,500 words (excluding title page, contents page, acknowledgements, footnotes and bibliography).

I wish you the best of luck and hope that it receives the grade that it deserves.

According to Word, without Bibliography but including footnotes, it’s 12,504 words. There are simply different requirements for the degree at different institutions, especially across countries. Even simply in the US, there are schools that award a Masters in Library Science and don’t require ANY final paper…the coursework and an exam are all that is necessary.

Here at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, there is no minimum length requirement for Master’s Papers. The only requirement is that your advisor approves it (in my case, Paul Jones, the director of

Thanks so much for the feedback (although I wish you’d left your email so that I could have done this via private email rather than through the comments!)

Ha…Robert, that was the point of the entire exercise. 🙂 We’ll see if it gets “noticed” by any library-types as the week progresses. My goal is to work the last few chapters into an article, and submit it to a few ILS journals. We’ll see if any of them accept it. 🙂

The site was posted on my Library Science Listserve at the University of North Texas. I’ve read your article and will be referencing it in a class presentation I’m making this Friday. Best of luck, it looks like your career is off to a blaze of glory!

I was wondering where all the hits were coming from. 🙂 I’d love to see a copy of the presentation! Actually, I’d love to see ANY references to the paper, actually…if it shows up on an ILS listserv or blog, I’d love to see what was said. Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

Jason, your paper is ruddy brilliant. If I thought I could get away with printing 80 pages on the shared work printer, I’d take a print copy with me when Michael Gorman comes to my school campus this afternoon to talk about future directions of ALA.

And I almost put this in my blog: After reading Jason’s thesis, I’m quite tempted to take my own and bury it under the light of a full moon, at a crossroads, with a stake of holly and a head of garlic, because it doesn’t deserve to see the light of day, even if it’s accepted.

I hope you’re happy, young man. :> If our schedules sync up in Orlando, I owe you a beer.

Copyright and ALA
Wow. Jason Griffey, who runs Pattern Recognition has completed his master’s paper on copyright, open access and ALA. The paper is already available on his site, under a Creative Commons license, and has been given a great review by Cory…

I’m curious…that would make a difference in exactly what way? That is…the content of the paper is there, with full bibliography and references for anyone to check. Does anything else matter? If so, why?

Approval and required signature from highly respected, tenured, graduate professor. That has to “count.” Whatever that means.

That’s a good start. I think it’s reasonable to ask the authority of a paper. I’m not quibbling with it–I haven’t even read it yet. But when I look at a resource, I evaluate it by the process underlying its authority. Acceptance for publication would be a huge plus, as well. Not that I don’t read (or produce) all kinds of informal documents.

Although the paper has citations, anyone can put footnotes in a paper. The value of the editorial process, whether through a professor, a peer review process, or a good editor, is not only that it usually improves the end product, but it also saves the reader’s time by not forcing the reader to do the legwork related to document authority. But hey, here I am lecturing, and I’m sure that was covered at UNC at some point… good for you to write something interesting. I’ll read it soon.

I’ll say that sometimes this is true. I’d give a lot more attention to a book by Lessig than I would someone I’d never heard of. At the same time, the director of my papers name is on the title page. As well, I think any distinction between “formal” and “informal” publication in these days of the web is tenuous at best.

If this had been published anonymously…would that have made a significant difference in the content? These are important questions in our day of digital publication. Personally, I am not often tempted by appeal to authority. I’d rather have coherence of appreciation, where many people find a work useful. The fact that many people seem to be interested in the work, and that they seem to find value in it is more important to me than any single authority figure (whether we’re talking about my paper, or any other). This is the reason that I place a high level of value on the Wikipedia (and the web in general).

I would agree that often editorial review assists in making a paper a better paper, mainly through a process of question and answer vis a vis the author being forced to explain himself in a more precise manner. I am equally certain that slapping a grade on it would make no difference whatsoever in the content, nor in the “authority” of the paper. As well, I’d hope that we expect the author of the paper to be responsible for the references. I wouldn’t want to produce any work that I felt it necessary for an editor to double check my references.

I wasn’t arguing that an editor should check your references, but there is value to editorial review. And there’s more to it than simply explaining oneself more precisely. Frankly, I love being edited, and I appreciate the review process.

I too put a lot of value on the Web; I’m a digital library manager. But I also manage a resource that lives and dies by the authority and quality of its resources–by the power of editorial review. That something is on the Web does not mean that it is authoritative. And yes, it would make a difference (to me) if it were published anonymously.

Again, it sounds like a very interesting paper on an important topic. Good for you.

I supervised Jason’s paper and checked his references. They are accurate. In the School of Information and Library Science, a Master’s Paper such as this one is supervised and checked all along the way (and encouraged). Grades as such are not given.
That said, you might consider reading a paper even on the web before deciding out of hand that it has or does not have authority and accuracy.

Theses have always been accepted as an authoritative work.

Having completed a thesis myself and known many others that have been through the process, a thesis is a reputable source of new ideas, and in many cases is reviewed and analysed through the examination process much more closely than many peer reviewed papers.

Jason – are you going to submit your paper to the digital theses program too, as well as having it on your own site? It’s a good resource, and needs to grow with the help of excellent theses such as yours.

Great to see a thesis on this topic, very timely. Congratulations on the wide readership that it is getting.

I have submitted the Master’s Paper into the digital repository here at UNC. Other than that I have not planned any specific submission of it. I do plan on working the paper into an article of some type, but what and where may publish it is yet to be seen.

However, one of the beautiful things is that if anyone out there wants to copy it for any non-commercial use, the CC license allows it. The license is on the second page of the paper, just after the copyright statement.

The Perils of Strong Copyright
Un sujet qui n’intéressera personne à part les bibliothécaires (et encore) : un excellent mémoire d’un bibliothécaire américain qui compare les publications libres de l’association des bibliothèques américaines et les documents édités avec une licen…

Your paper includes the Journal of the Medical Library Association (JMLA) as one of ALA’s scholarly journals. The JMLA is not now and never has been connected in any way to ALA. It is published by the Medical Library Association, an organization which has been completely separate from ALA for it’s entire 100+ year history. I’m surprised that such a fundamental error made it into an accepted Master’s thesis. The issue of how library organizations handle their publishing programs is certainly an extremely important one, but this kind of sloppy research does little to aid the cause. — T. Scott Plutchak, Editor, Journal of the Medical Library Association and Director, Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences, University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Re: JMLA and T. Scott Plutchak’s comment (#27)

Page 32, footnote #1…introduction of journal choices:

“[1] They are either publications of divisions or sections of the ALA. The sole exception of this, to the best of my knowledge, is the Journal of the Medical Library Association. ”

I was aware of the distinction you made, and was very careful to point out that the JMLA is not a publication of the ALA. It was largely included in order to have further examples of copyright statements to draw from in order to show the differences in copyright statements in academic library journals. I will attempt to be more clear in the revision of my paper for publication as to the state of the JMLA as a seperate entity (I assume that the above statement was either missed in your reading, or you did not believe that it was clear enough. In either case, I should be more clear).

Gooday Jason, l came across your site while looking for a library that has
corvette workshop manuals, online, l’d like to read your paper but when l tried
to open it nothing happened, but sounds like your kicking some goals and that’s always
a good sign,keep up the good work and God Bless You………………Steve from Australia.

From T. Scott Plutchak, and the JMLA:

1) The footnote refers back to the sentence that reads “There are seven journals that are connected in some manner to ALA…” In that context, the footnote can only be interpreted to mean that while JMLA is not a product of one of the divisions or sections, it is still a product of ALA. I repeat, the JMLA is not now nor has it ever been in any way connected to ALA.

2) In the paragraph that follows the list of journals you will be analyzing, you say that you “took these as a representative sample of scholarly ALA publications.” How is the reader to deduce from this that JMLA is not an ALA publication?

3) The intro paragraph to your chart states, “it seems enlightening to compare and contrast the various copyright licenses of the ALA journals in question…” Again, this clearly implies that JMLA is an ALA journal.

4) Appendix 1 is titled: ALA Copyright policies. The JMLA copyright license agreement is included with nothing to differentiate it from the others.

5) Your introductory paragraph to Chapter Five says that you will turn your “eye towards the ALA itself, and examine a list of its more popular serial publications” and you end that paragraph by saying that you will now “turn to an examination of the scholarly journals of the ALA.” There is nothing here to indicate that you are looking at non-ALA journals.

6) Nowhere do you mention the existence of the Medical Library Association. In your email you say you included JMLA because you wanted to show the differences in copyright statements in academic library journals — but the entire thrust and focus of your argument is about the ALA, and nowhere in the paper do you suggest that you included the JMLA as an example of an academic library journal published by a different entity.

My response (originally via email) to T. Scott Pulchak’s comments:

Very, very thoughtful feedback. I can absolutely see, in retrospect, that your points are almost universally on point.

As I mentioned, the publicity generated re: “Perils” had caught me not a little by surprise. Here at UNC, we complete a Master’s Paper (not technically a thesis). The requirements are very different, largely because the program requires a comprehensive exam as well as a rigorous schedule. To view my paper as a thesis is a little misleading, although that in no way exacerbates any errors on my part. Rest assured that I meant in no way to impune the origins or motives of the JMLA…I’m _very_ pleased to find out that you are available via PubMed central. I can only say that I am not sure how I missed that fact.

I will be certain to make the appropriate changes during any revision of the paper. I do hope to work this into a journal publication, but lately my interest has been drawn into thoughts about whether or not the paper “counts” as published. Certainly I do not believe that any tenure committee would accept posting on my blog as “publication” and most of my recent writing has been in this realm. I’m beginning to view the paper on the blog as a “call for comments” or something of that nature. I do believe that the central thesis of the paper (that the ALA is saying one thing, and doing another) is solid, and if I have weakened my argument by including the JMLA (which it now appears to me that I have) then it is to my detriment. I will rectify that in further versions. I do not have a good answer as to how myself, and the myriad of other readers (including the nearly hundred email replies I’ve recieved through my blog) missed some of these points. Currently I can only guess that it was in the haste of the completion of the degree. I certainly did not intend to misrepresent the JMLA.

Jason — I apologize for not reading the entire paper and have only been following the comments Scott has made re: references to the JMLA and the Medical Library Association. I think you might want to explore the MLA situation with Scott further as a means of contrasting what one library association did (MLA) vs. what another library association should do (ALA) about living up to its message about copyright and open access. If I understand the point of your paper, library associations who “preach” open access have to live up to its own message. This is exactly what the MLA did, and I think many of its members are very pleased. It certainly makes it easier for us health sciences librarians to promote open access when we have our professional associations backing us up with action, not just words.
I encourage you to submit your paper for publication. Hope this message helps.

[…] Really great article examining the trade-offs for Open Access by T. Scott Plutchak, the editor of the JMLA. I find the article really refreshing, especially since I somewhat unfairly critiqued the JMLA in my Master’s Paper for not going Open Access. While I know my little diatribe didn’t have an effect on it, it’s refreshing to see Mr. Plutchak singing the praises of OA anyway. We had a bit of a discussion after the publication of my Master’s Paper, and he was very kind in pointing out areas where I had possibly mis-represented the JMLA and its stances. I was grateful at the time, and remain so. […]

[…] I find the article really refreshing, especially since I somewhat unfairly critiqued the JMLA in my Master’s Paper for not going Open Access. While I know my little diatribe didn’t have an effect on it, it’s refreshing to see Mr. Plutchak singing the praises of OA anyway. We had a bit of a discussion after the publication of my Master’s Paper, and he was very kind in pointing out areas where I had possibly mis-represented the JMLA and its stances. I was grateful at the time, and remain so. […]

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