Me ‘n MIT: Building Better Contracts for On-Line Publishing

October 23, 2010

For anyone out there interested in digital academic publishing, I am quite pleased to report that the slow and complex negotiations to create a useful and meaningful contract with MIT Press for my “video-book” are at last complete. And I have the paper to prove it! I have hoped that sharing these fruitful if hard conversations with the innovative editors at MIT who have been open to re-thinking what counts as a book, and how we might all gain from new forms of writing and its publishing, especially about digital content, would be useful for others who are also wrangling their way on this awkward, and usually unsupported trek, and I thank the editors at MIT for agreeing to let me make this public.

Before I get to brass tacks, I think it is critical to acknowledge that my effort has been supported, in a variety of ways that are exceedingly relevant. I workshopped the video-book over a summer as part of Vector‘s and the Institute for Media Literacy‘s NEH Summer Institute, and then they continued to support the design and programming of the project as part of an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, “The Alliance for Networking Visual Culture,” that has aimed to get academic presses (like MIT) and media databases together with scholars to talk about the future of new media publishing. I say this is relevant because born digital “books” need more and different supports than paper ones, in that the technical and technological infrastructure that builds, holds, and enables such work (designers, like my own, that is Vector’s, Craig Dietrich, programmers, databases, building tools) themselves need financial support to do their part of the by-definition collaborative effort which allows for digital writing that is at once intellectually, architecturally, and design rich. Because this project was supported by grants, it can be offered for free on MIT’s website, and while this allows us to envision innovative projects, it is probably not the most viable economic model for either the production or sales of such efforts in the long term. Obviously, this has been one of the things MIT has been thinking about in relation to my project and the others that will follow, there and elsewhere.

And here are some of the other shiny brass tacks for which MIT had to produce an entirely new letter of agreement to express, explain, and verify our mutual obligations and rights:

Warranty: Given that a lot of my “video book” had already been “published” on the internet (YouTube, my blog), and was being re-purposed and designed for this publication, we had to create language that reflects the mobility of intellectual property.

Material created by other persons: Given that a lot of my “video book” is written by other people in the form of videos that they put on YouTube, and I point to from my work, we had to create language that indicated who was in what contractual relation with what entity, and what would be my responsibilities and options if work was pulled by YouTube or its authors from YouTube.

Also, given that designers and programmers also worked on my “video-book,” we had to create language that would acknowledge their participation and labor, while confirming that the copyright was mine.

Delivery and Size of the Work
: Given that the “video-book” was written in a database, with html and php, and through videos, we finally agreed that the press would only copy-edit its words which would stay hard to count given that the structure of the writing is not linear, i.e. it is networked or repeating. This was all they were equipped to do at this time, and the book has been very well copy-edited by a smart and innovative editor, but it seems clear that Presses will have to re-think the capabilities of some of their editors (as well as their work assignments) as more and more of us write with different tools and in digital forms. Also, given that the video-book is searchable, it was agreed that I need not provide an Index.

Editing: Given that the “video-book” will be updated, added to (by the author and users), and versioned, we agreed that the press would authorize and save the final copy-edited version, that would remain available, but that they were supportive of this object changing without further copy-editing or authorizing.

Sales, Promotion, Audience: The “video-book” will be offered for free on the Press’s website. Links back to their site and its other books will provide some form of compensation (countable with clicks but not dollars) for publishing the video-book, as will press and blogisphere coverage (although academic presses have rarely had to make sense of this as part of their operations). We will also work together to get notice of the video-book to a new audience that includes their traditional readers, as well as many others who fall outside this net. Again, the expanded audience’s use of the book will only be calculatable with clicks, and links, and redaction.

Upkeep, Hosting, Archiving: Given that the “video-book” sits on-line on a database at USC, we had to create language to account for the costs, labor, and technical know-how to maintain and archive the work, including dead links, and ongoing user interaction.

Look for the video-book coming soon to a computer very near you.

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