Digital Dissertation Dust-Up

(Author’s Note: the following article is archived here for fair use and historical documentation purposes only, to protect key records that are disappearing from their original locations on the web, as many print media properties are cavalier about maintaining archives and permalinks in times of cutbacks and publications going out of business.)

Film clips and hyperlinks in graduate theses raise tough copyright and open-source issues


Virginia A. Kuhn, a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, was having dissertation trouble

Nothing unusual about that.

But it wasn’t that Ms. Kuhn was struggling to finish her thesis. The trouble was that officials at the institution could not figure out whether to accept it.

Her thesis is not a printed document. It was born digital, in a multimedia format full of film clips, hyperlinks to other parts of the work, and other uses of electronic media.

There was no way to measure the margins to make sure they met the university’s specifications, which are notoriously strict at many institutions. But that was a minor concern. The biggest issue was copyright. Citing a snippet of text in a printed thesis is standard procedure, but including a piece of video or a still picture, which Ms. Kuhn says is critical to explain her points, can raise the ire of copyright holders, and sound the alarm among university attorneys.

Although Ms. Kuhn lists detailed citations for all multimedia works in her thesis, she refused to ask permission to include them, because she insists that she should be able to cite them in the same way that print sources have long been cited. She says: “If you ask for permission, you’re screwed because you imply that you legally need it.”

Instead, she says, “I’m doing all that’s incumbent on me legally to establish fair use.”

The topic of the work, as it happens, is the challenges of adopting new technologies in teaching and learning.

Even though university officials first approved her dissertation and tentatively granted her a doctorate in December, they quickly reconsidered and put a hold on her transcript while they deliberated on whether they could accept the thesis. Only in late March did the university grant her degree, after a nerve-racking delay. Ms. Kuhn, now a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television, is among a very few students to compose a dissertation completely in multimedia format. Many dissertations now include some film, sound, or other media files. Few, however, appear to have been conceived as multimedia projects from the start.

Why not just stick to the traditional format?

“As I did my research,” says Ms. Kuhn, “I became convinced that I had to put it in this digital format, because the subject is what happens to writing, now, in this digital age. I couldn’t make the argument without the digital format.”

An Enhanced Book

The form of Ms. Kuhn’s dissertation is based on that of a regular book, but with many nonstandard features. Its online pages are heavy with text, like a printed book, but when a user moves the cursor over the pages, hyperlinks pop up, leading to embedded information. And images, when clicked on, open windows containing more-detailed captions, or a film clip, or citations. An electronic “sticky note” feature lets users record comments and reactions for their own later reference.

“I made it look traditional so it wouldn’t be completely alienating for a university user,” says Ms. Kuhn.

To produce the electronic work, she used TK3, a software platform designed by Robert Stein, research director at USC’s Institute for the Future of the Book. An acclaimed figure in new-media circles, Mr. Stein is the founder of Night Kitchen, a seven-year-old company that develops writing tools for electronic publishing.

Ms. Kuhn first secured the approval of her dissertation committee, whose members became enthusiastic after initially hesitating. When her doctorate was put on hold, committee members went to bat for her.

She assured University of Wisconsin officials she was willing to convert the document from the TK3 platform to an open-source program that Mr. Stein and colleagues have developed, called Sophie, which Mr. Stein says is specifically designed to “be alive for a long time.” The Sophie project is part of his work with the Institute for the Future of the Book, a collaboration between USC’s Annenberg Center for Communication and Columbia University. The software allows writers and readers to have conversations within books — both live “chats” and exchanges through comments and annotations.

The software does not answer the thorny copyright questions, though.

In her dissertation Ms. Kuhn discusses such subjects as what it means in the era of digitized media to reproduce images. That and, as she puts it, “why should you pay copyright fees to cite an image but not a word?”

She argues that citing works, the way one cites texts, should be enough. Copyright laws, as currently enforced, she says, “limit what can be put out there,” and discriminate against people without a lot of money. “The rich can afford to pay Hollywood for those clips.”

In fact, she does not know how much copyright clearances would cost her were she to request them. But she is certain that it would be more than a beginning academic could afford.

While the status of Ms. Kuhn’s dissertation remained in limbo, some graduate-school officials said they were not interested in helping her break down copyright barriers, even though current copyright laws have never contemplated cases like hers.

Saving a Copy

Storing the dissertation could also cause problems, says Ewa E. Barczyk, interim director of the Golda Meir Library at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

The University of Wisconsin System is setting up a repository for a variety of digital documents from the system’s campuses. But the library requires that materials that are placed in the archive be “open-access compliant,” she says, so that anyone can get to them. And, she says, if Ms. Kuhn’s work is included in such a repository, that may create legal problems because copyright holders may consider the document’s accessibility a breach of their copyrights.

The university’s legal department, however, has washed its hands of the dissertation. “After reviewing the matter, we concluded that the copyright issues were the concern of the student and publisher, not UWM,” says Robin L. Van Harpen, the campus’s senior university legal counsel, in an e-mail message.

For members of Ms. Kuhn’s doctoral committee, the delay in approval of her work became frustrating. “I don’t see what Virginia did as anything less than a solid, original dissertation,” says one of them, Charles I. Schuster, associate dean of humanities. “It met all the requirements: good argument, exploratory, full references and sources, innovative.”

Even the copyright concerns struck him as misplaced. The concept of “fair use” should apply, he said, because “this is a dissertation, not a commercial property.

Legal experts agree. “It seems to be classic fair use,” says Kenneth D. Salomon, a Washington lawyer who often represents colleges in intellectual-property cases.

Courts determine fair use by considering several questions, says Peter Jaszi, a professor of law at American University. Is the use educational? Is it for commercial ends? Does it do measurable harm to a copyright holder’s prospects in the marketplace? Are the clips unnecessarily long or numerous?

He agrees with Ms. Kuhn that images should be evaluated just as text is. “Case law makes that absolutely clear,” he says.

Of course, he says, universities’ lawyers are paid to avoid risk, but they should beware of doing so at the cost of legitimate educational and research goals.

He recommends that representatives of various academic groups, including developers of multimedia works, do what members of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies have done over the last decade: formulate a document of best practices relating to fair use, and stake a claim to it.

But even court rulings, say the two lawyers, do not prevent organizations such as University Microfilms Inc., the publisher and repository of 98 percent of doctoral dissertations completed in the United States, from imposing their own rules. And, in fact, Milwaukee officials did meet opposition when they tried to submit Ms. Kuhn’s work to that archive.

The company, which is now part of ProQuest Information and Learning, has been accepting dissertations in CD-ROM format since 1996. Sound, video, and other nontext files can be uploaded to the company using an online submissions process. But those files must be in “standard” formats — and the TK3 software platform does not qualify.

Nor does Ms. Kuhn’s dissertation meet the company’s copyright-compliance requirements. Tina Orozco, a spokesperson for ProQuest, said in an e-mail message: “While we are seeing many challenges to copyright ‘standard practice’ and the scope of ‘fair use’ is being debated across academia and the global media, we are obligated to protect our authors to the extent possible and to comply with the standards set by our agreement with the Library of Congress.”

According to company policy, authors must obtain “written permission to reproduce copyrighted images, video, graphics, animation, data, and images of individuals.” When copyright questions remain, “publication will be delayed until those concerns are resolved.”

Delayed Resolution

Last month the dean of the university’s graduate school, Abbas Ourmazd, said in an e-mail message that the institution would award Ms. Kuhn’s doctoral degree on the basis of having formulated a “‘first pass’ solution to the issues raised” by it. She had “clearly earned” the degree, he said, so the university would “not wait until all issues are finally resolved.”

In addition to problems of readability and dissemination, he said, there is the obvious one of copyright. He said Ms. Kuhn’s work posed challenges because, for example, it “includes video clips nested inside other multimedia ‘quotes’ from other ‘authors.'” In such cases, attempts at clear referencing of material are “not always so simple,” he said. The university is not permitted to help a student resolve such legal issues, but officials are sympathetic to the difficulty students face when they try to, he said. Students, he said, are “ill resourced to clarify such complex legal and commercial issues.”

Multimedia dissertations are not new, though they have been few and far between. One of the first was Christine Boese’s 1998 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute dissertation about the “Xenaverse,” the cyberworld of fandom for the television show, Xena: Warrior Princess (the work is stored at http://www.nutball .com/dissertation).

Authors of multimedia dissertations have found various ways to deal with the issues that officials at Milwaukee have been confronting. Way back in 1997, for her dissertation at the University of Virginia, Constanze M. Witt, now a lecturer in classics at the University of Texas at Austin, used a multimedia format to support her arguments about the nature of early Celtic art.

“I actually didn’t have many problems with acceptance, as the time was ripe,” she says. The “nonlinearity” of hypertext suited her subject, she says. Celtic art, she explains, is “curvilinear; it’s very hard to follow what is background and what is foreground. Many images don’t have a beginning and an end; they twist and turn on themselves.”

With all that, she says, to use a linear medium would be to impose a “post-Renaissance, four-square way of thinking,” inherited from Roman and Greek conceptions of art, onto her Celtic material.

Her nonstandard format did pass muster — although, she says, “the margins lady was upset because she couldn’t wield her ruler.”

But permissions did pose problems. Some museums refused to allow Ms. Witt to reproduce images she wished to include, or allowed her to include only low-resolution versions. But she skirted those issues and used some images without permission, she says, by not making the dissertation publicly available, “although I do have an innocuous Web-site version.” On the Web, she includes low-resolution versions, with permission, of the images she had wished to run in high-resolution mode.

She has not sought to register her work with University Microfilms.

At her current institution, doctoral candidates are required to submit their dissertations electronically. But “the dissertations aren’t hypertextual, at all,” she says, noting that they must be designed to print out like book pages and submitted as files converted to Adobe’s Portable Document Format, or PDF.

Mr. Stein, of USC, suspects that the full-fledged advent of the digital dissertation is still a ways off. “Everybody is looking at everybody else, and saying, ‘You go first,'” he says. “You’re going to see a lot of that for a while.”
Section: Information Technology
Volume 52, Issue 34, Page A41

Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education