This item caught my attention today on Boing Boing:
Michael Moulton, a prof at the University of Florida, is suing a company that republishes his students’ notes from class, because he says that taking notes on his classes and selling them violates his copyright.
There is interesting reader commentary on this story both at Boing Boing and Wired.com. Much of the discussion centers on the legal ramifications, Professor Moulton’s motive (profit), and the students’ motives (ditching class).
The legal ramifications are important, of course. But I recall a case where a different motive made me much more sympathetic to the professor involved.
In the mid-1980’s, Mark Reader, one of my Political Science Professors at Arizona State announced that his lectures were copyrighted–but not because he objected to for-profit note takers. It was because Accuracy in Academia was sending its McCarthyist goons to spy on professors suspected of being too leftist. This was during the Reagan presidency (pre deification), and ASU was one of several campuses where “preppy conservatism” was running amok.
Dr. Reader was trying to prevent A.I.A. from recording and/or republishing his lectures in their witch-hunting materials.
If academic freedom is the motive, does that change the calculation here?
Yes, Dr. Reader was a total Marxist, but that’s not the point. A.I.A was orchestrating a hit job on Reader because they didn’t like his politics.
Why, you might ask, do I remember these events so well?
One of those A.I.A. goons was Matthew Scully, who years later would become a speechwriter for George W Bush.
In 1985 Scully was also an editorial writer for State Press, ASU’s student newspaper. Len Munsil was the editor and enabler. Among Munsil’s conservative credentials at the time: he refused to publish in the events calendar the meetings of a student gay and lesbian organization.
Scully, Munsil, and their associates became known on campus and off, as “The God Squad.”
I was reporter for the State Press for a time, and got caught in the politics of the conservative student insurgency.
In order to keep his job as editor, Munsil had keep in the good graces of the student body president–because the president appointed members to a board overseeing student publications. The president at the time was Ray Burnell, a handsome young poster child for the Religious Right.
I covered Burnell’s participation at an an anti-abortion conference. I interviewed Burnell, and found him to be surprisingly likable. I reported that the “non-partisan” organization sponsoring the conference was electioneering exclusively for Republican candidates. I also noted that, although Burnell was not speaking in his capacity as student body president, his introduction at the conference left room for ambiguity.
I’m not saying what I wrote was a great piece of journalism, but it was all accurate.
The story never ran. A few days later, I was personally canned from the paper by Munsil.
I was devastated at the time, but have come to regard it as a feather in my cap.
Last year, Scully penned a whiny article for The Atlantic on how Michael Gerson hogged all of the credit for putting pretty words in the mouth of George W Bush.
Also last year, Munsil made an unsuccessful run for governor of Arizona, on a platform of immigrant phobia. I was happier than most to see him fail.
A few hours after I posted this, I received a call from Keith Dungan, founder of Faulkner Press, one of the plaintiffs in the Florida case. That was interesting. Someone actually read my blog? Dungan thanked me for my posting, and said he appreciated that I alone had commented that the Florida case was about academic freedom. I don’t think that’s what I said. In Florida, the intent of the professional note takers is not to intimidate and undermine the professor, as was the intent of A.I.A. in Arizona.
To be honest, I’m not sure where I stand. In the case of Prof. Moulton, the lawsuit seems petty, unreasonable, and perhaps a bad precedent were it to succeed. On the other hand, Prof. Reader’s tactic of asserting copyright seemed like a bold and clever counter threat against the A.I.A. creeps. Could Dr. Reader have been wrong? (I certainly believe he was wrong about Marxism.) Maybe I’m making a false parallel, but the central issue seems the same in both instances: Can college professors copyright their lectures?