Is this blog “property”? If so, whose? And who controls the answers to these questions (and the consequences thereto attached)?
Once upon a time (let’s say about three months ago), I thought the answers obvious enough: “in America,” this blog is “mine.” It is expression which I could transform it into property if I decided to commercialize it and/or sell it. It all had to do with “freedom of expression” and particularly “academic freedom,” privileges granted by the Constitution to individuals.
And then I was taught about “work for hire laws.” As summarized in a work for hire document written at the request of a corporation developing a “policy on intellectual property” (note the word “property,” not “knowledge”) the law says:
Under the Copyright Law, the copyright to a work created by a person in the course of his or her employment is Work for Hire, which belongs to the employer rather than to the individual creator.
I remembered reading something about this around issues of whistle blowing in large corporations, but never thought much about it, assuming that this was other people’s problems.
I was wrong. The paragraph continue:
The law provides, therefore, that works created by faculty members in the course of their teaching and research, and works created by staff members in the course of their jobs, are the property of the College.
Note the “therefore.” This blog is the property of the College, by law.
But not to worry:
It is traditional at this College and other colleges and universities, however, for books, articles and other scholarly writings by a faculty member to be deemed the property of the author, who is considered to be entitled to determine how the works are to be disseminated and to keep any income they produce. This tradition reflects the College’s commitment to encourage members of the community to write and to publish what they wish. In recognition of that longstanding practice, the College disclaims ownership of Traditional Works of Scholarship.
Over the past several weeks I have pushed and prodded the people involved in writing and re-writing all this, that is in transforming ideas into potentially authoritative texts for which they are being paid but which will never be considered “theirs” (deans, lawyers, other staff). In the process (besides making myself somewhat obnoxious—and I apologize for unnecessary outbursts!) I got to think further about an issue I could not quite figure out. Over the past years, many on the faculty have complained about the movement of the College towards a “corporate model.” Two years ago, the controversy swirled about the College’s President sitting on the board of directors of a Large Multi-National Corporation. But I was not quite sure whether this was a complaint about individuals or about something broader.
What is, interactionally, the “corporate model”–leaving aside the values, beliefs, interests, etc. of individuals who may benefit from it, or who may resist it?
One answer lies in taking seriously what I was told again and again when I objected: “Herve! This is the law! There is no choice here!” the College is a corporation, no different from Apple or Google (in another generation one might have written “no different from General Motors”)! You are an employee!” And I was reminded that all my emails (all that I receive from colleagues, students, etc.) are archived at the College (actually, they are physically on Google servers) and may be read at the discretion to the College.
The corporate model, then, has to do with the reality (non-negotiable) that my personal life, as employee, is largely at the discretion of the College. Technically, in recent anthropological jargon, the College is a Latourian agent who (to quote from above) “deems,” “considers,” “encourages,” “disclaims.” The College (speech) acts. All this is controlled, allowed and enforced by “the law of the land,” that is by the College’s Sovereign who grants Corporations certain privileges. That is, the Law does not require that my blog be deemed property of the Corporation. The Corporation may disclaim. But the Corporation is now the Active Subject that speaks through internal policies, sub-regulations, etc. The Sovereign (State, nation, people) has stepped back. A preamble may state that a “policy” regulates rights:
This copyright policy retains and reasserts the rights of faculty members for books, monographs, articles, and similar works as delineated in the policy statement.
Politics (the protection of expression and academic freedom) has been devolved to policy. State actors yield to corporate management. We are more fully than I thought in the world of the “Non Governmental Agency” (and, of course, the word “agent” has to be taken in all its many meanings) with its specific properties (affordances). This world has been coopting broader and broader areas of everyday intervention around world. For example, in my world, what used to be considered major decisions about, for example, the control of public schooling has been devolved to various corporate bodies with various, more or less delineated, right to participate, authority to regulate and mete sanctions. I wrote about this when the teacher education programs at TC had to yield to NCATE (and produce a lot of “work-for-hire” intellectual property) (Varenne 2007 ). I was fascinated by report from Steven Brill in the New York Times  about the web that has been entangling the aftermaths of the No Child Left Behind Act. The report was about the wonderfully awfully named “Race to Top” program.
So, one might answer the questions about property, ownership, and control of my expression, with a quip: the Benevolent Billionaire Barons of the 21st century! This, of course is too simple as it does not specify the mechanisms that makes this blog “deemed” my own by Teachers College (and I thank the Corporation for its generosity).
More on that another day.