Thursday, January 25, 2007

Email and Blogging, Copyright and Test Prep

Over at Snarkmarket on January 5, I wrote in a comment about something I found peculiar in my own internet habits. Here's the relevant chunk of my comment:

I'll often blog or comment on somebody else's article, but hardly ever email an author directly to tell him or her what I think. Part of the electronic public wants to continue the conversation with the author, but many of us are having our own conversation about somebody's thoughts, deeds, or words without ANY reference or input from them directly. This is understandable when it's an author, politician, artist, or other public figure -- there's a tradition there of having some kind of divide between the people who talk and those who are talked about. When it's other people who are in a similar situation to our own, it's more than a little weird.

A few days ago, I decided to break out of this habit and email another blogger directly rather than blogging on his post. The blogger happened to be Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing. Doctorow posted an anecdote sent to him by a friend about a copyright-protection clause the friend was made to sign when taking the GRE (Graduate Record Examination). Here's the text of Doctorow's post:

GREs: Cheating == copyright infringement

Friend of Boing Boing sez, "I took the GRE this afternoon, at a computer testing center in Brooklyn. I was forced to sign (and copy in longhand!) a statement about how I wouldn't tell anyone what was on the test. I was particularly upset by the following statement."

If I reproduce test questions in any manner I am subject to a copyright infringement lawsuit and any other action(s) ETS may take.

"I can understand ETS saying that telling someone what's on the GRE is dishonorable behavior, and that if you're found cheating they'll 'take measures' against you -- perhaps invalidating test scores. But 'copyright infringement lawsuit'? That's crazy talk!"

I'm more or less sympathetic with Doctorow and his copyright abuse hobbyhorse, but it seemed like there was an important part of this story that the friend (and Doctorow, by passing it along without comment) misunderstood. So I found Doctorow's email address by following the link from his Boing Boing site to his personal page, Craphound. Actually, its full title is "Cory Doctorow's"

Here's the text of my email:

Dear Cory,

I read your recent Boing Boing post on GREs and the copyright waiver
your friend was made to sign. Having worked for several test prep
companies and taught the GRE in particular, I can say that ETS is much
less concerned with student-to-student cheating than it is the
unauthorized reproduction of test questions by companies like Kaplan,
Princeton Review, and other test prep providers.

ETS publishes its own book of sample GRE exams
that are authentic, preadministered tests. Test prep companies have to
pay to develop their own sample tests and questions for their courses,
based on the publicly available ETS materials. Unlike ETS, they're not
allowed to say that their questions are "actual" test questions...
although it's been known to happen that some are slightly modified or
outright lifted versions of ETS-developed questions.



To me, at least, this is a more interesting story than the one Doctorow tells. It's not that the GRE is equating cheating with copyright violation. It's that they're not really concerned with cheating at all, or at least, not as much as they are with protecting their own intellectual property, which just so happens to provide a lucrative publishing business on top of their primary business of writing and administering tests.

I had high hopes that Doctorow would add a chunk of my clarification to Boing Boing, not least because the bloggers there do that sort of thing all the time. But it's been three days, and no luck. I don't know if he hasn't seen the email, if he doesn't trust it, or just isn't interested in clarifying the story. (Instead, he posted on Craphound about how he'd made Forbes's list of the "Top 25 Web Celebrities.")

I don't want to be too hard on Doctorow. I very nearly called another blogger a coward for not posting a critical comment, when it turned out that the blog software just wasn't working the way it was supposed to. But it's left me a little down on the idea of carrying on direct conversations with other bloggers. Blogging may be the public sphere, but it doesn't leave much room for conversations on the side. Unless next time, I try Xeni Jardin.


Robin said...

I feel like you picked the toughest possible case to start with -- an internet celebrity constantly being bombarded with links, counter-links, and pitches. I feel like it'd be easier to get a more mainstream celebrity on the line, even if they were much larger -- Doctorow is so immersed in the world of Heavy Information Flow that I suspect it's very hard to get classified as 'signal' in his world instead of 'noise.'

PoN said...

I agree with Robin. Boing Boing gets so much trafiic/email that your missive is probably just overlooked.

Tim said...

Again, I said I don't want to judge Cory too harshly. If anything, it bumps up my respect for Xeni Jardin, who somehow manages to stay on top of everything and print gabs of reader comments too.

And this goes back to my original comment on Snarkmarket -- we're used to a divide between ourselves and famous figures, authors, celebrities. Celebrity bloggers are just a brand new species.

doctorow said...

I didn't respond because I think you're wrong. First of all, the GRE *says that copying it is a copyright violation* -- which is what I reported on.

Second of all, what does it matter if they don't want their competitors to copy from them?

1. That's not what they're saying

2. If it's true, then they can sue their competitors for infringement

3. Or, if it turns out that tests aren't a copyrightable subject matter, then tough shit, compete or die -- the law sets out innumerable copyrightable subject matters, pick one and go into business publishing it

Just because I didn't post your comment doesn't mean I didn't read it, consider it, and make a decision about it. I answer in excess of 400 emails a day. But I don't answer every email I get -- particularly when it doesn't seem to contain anything substantive ("They don't mean what they say, besides, other companies rip them off" isn't very relevant IMO).

Tim said...

Sorry, Cory. I believe that you get 200 emails a day, and you can't respond to them all. But your position on this is totally wrong.

First, it's exactly what ETS is saying. It seems clear that your friend took the clause as equating cheating on the test as a copyright violation, when the clause is quite clear that it's that the reproduction of course materials is what they're willing to sue over. Your point then that ETS "can sue their competitors for infringement" is exactly what the clause says that ETS will do.

Reproducing test questions, whether in print or on the web, isn't an effective way to cheat on a test. ETS won't give the same test twice for exactly that reason. The only reason you would reproduce test questions is to give someone the idea of the kinds of questions that are on the exam. And it's that intellectual property that ETS is trying to protect.

If you read this post -- and I admit that I didn't spell this out in my email -- my position is that you can make a stronger case for the copyright-perversity of ETS using this information. ETS does not make you sign a long statement promising not to cheat. It makes you sign one saying that you won't undercut their test prep business. It's obvious that this is where their priorities really lie. But your headline AND your friend's comments actually obscure this. And that's a shame.

Tim said...

This is the craziest thing in the context of the main point of this post. Which is that instead of emailing Cory, if I'd just blogged about it, and said in full form what I thought, I might have gotten linked to. It's strange that that's where a lot of the misunderstanding comes from.

Robin said...

Yeah, one thing about email these days is that it is the 'dark matter' of internet discourse. In many cases, you WANT your argument to be out there, in full, on the record. Even if it does seem awfully indirect sometimes.