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Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

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Copyfight

« DOJ to Google Books: "Hold On There" | Main | IFPI Commits Blogocide - Rules Be Damned »

February 16, 2010

Reclusive Mathematician to Crowdsourcers: Hold On There

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Steven Landsburg's blog "The Big Questions" tells the interesting story of the aborted attempt to crowdsource the work of Alexandre Grothendieck. The work in question is a series of very dense volumes of fundamental, game-changing publications in mathematics.

Grothendieck's work was originally published in 20 now out-of-print volumes from Springer-Verlag. Unfortunately, the demand for these works in the specialist mathematical community far exceeds the size of the supply of original printed volumes that remain. No problem, this is the Net age, and indeed a Dutch mathematics professor, Bas Edixhoven, had organized a crowdsourced effort to retype the works with proper mathematical symbols, typo corrections and so on.

All of which came to a screeching halt on receipt of a letter from Grothendieck himself that, while not threatening legal action, insisted that all such efforts cease. Grothendieck appears to hold the copyrights but his objections are not commercial. According to Landsburg (who admits he is also guessing) it has to do with the old man's unhappiness with how his works have been used since their publication.

I'm reminded of the story from January of last year, in which a copyright holder chose to withdraw works from circulation despite the likely benefits that would have resulted from their use. It's a reminder that not everyone sees things the same way, and not everyone cares about getting the widest possible distribution for what they've done.

ETA: the comments on the blog post contain several links with more information and a rough translation of the letter, if you're interested in more details.

(Full disclosure: Landsburg and I are casual friends and occasional verbal sparring partners. Neither of us makes any money from our blogs, though of course he makes money if you buy his book of the same name.)

Comments (3) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Use


COMMENTS

1. Joe Clark on February 17, 2010 12:26 AM writes...

I would appreciate it if you did not adopt a mask of neutrality. Are you not actually attempting to say Grothendieck is committing a crime against scholarship by enforcing his own creator rights?

Or if I don’t have that exactly right, do you not feel this is a travesty of justice in some way which I’m sure you’ll explain to us?

Surely you do not neutrally support the principle that copyright holders can prevent nonexempt reproduction of their own works. Fundamentally I am quite sure you strenuously object. I just want you to be honest about it.

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2. DrWex on February 17, 2010 10:58 AM writes...

Fair question. I don't have a strong personal opinion on this one, not least because I'm not sure I understand it. If in fact this is someone who holds the rights to his own works and doesn't like how they've been used... well, then I support his choice to suppress further use of those works.

I think it's regrettable, not least because I respect Landsburg's judgment on the importance of the work. To choose voluntarily to suppress something that's of fundamental value to an entire field seems to me to be wrong-headed at the very least. And maybe Grothendieck really just is being a vindictive old man, which people probably ought not to be but it's hardly a crime.

But what value trumps that? If I think back to the Sita case I linked to in the original post there was a situation where a film could have potentially re-popularized a lost artist. The artist herself wasn't given a say.

I could also harken back to my screeds on the use of patents to suppress the cheap distribution of anti-AIDS drugs. There was a situation where I felt passionately that the rights of the IP holders needed to be trumped by the needs of sick people to get medicine to stay alive. And I certainly wasn't neutral about that.

So if I'm neutral on this case it's not a "mask" - it's that I'm not seeing what overriding good is served by going against Grothendeik's wishes. Are people going to die? Probably not. Will the information and knowledge in the works be lost? Definitely not.

So make me a case for the other side.

Permalink to Comment

3. Joe Clark on February 23, 2010 2:16 PM writes...

Well, it seems to me the issue is the complete reproduction of the work rather than reproducing an excerpt. If you quizzed him, I expect Grothendeik would admit this is the biggest thing that bothers him.

However: Nothing says you can’t quote the entirety of a work to comment on it. Absolutely nothing says this, including fair use and fair dealing (in respective countries). For example, pretty much the only way to comment on a photograph is to duplicate the entire photograph. This will surely not be true of an entire novel, but given how tightly one claim links to the next and the next in a mathematical proof, it may just be impossible to selectively excerpt. (Or if it is, it might be just the introductory pages you exclude, which is functionally equivalent to copying the whole book.)

If Grothendeik objects to the wholesale reproduction but if there really is no legitimate way to comment on the work without wholesale reproduction, then I’d be inclined to override Grothendeik’s wishes. But both stipulations would have to be true.

Also, fix the Unicode handling of your comments, please.

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