Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2007 Issue

"You Can't Stop Us": Walking Down a Dark Internet Lane

Dante and Virgil at the threshold of Hell (or maybe the Internet).


by Renée Magriel Roberts

A few weeks ago I was innocently searching for something or other on ABE, and quite by accident a doctoral dissertation by Renée Magriel Roberts called The Clock and the Rose: Time and Self--Transformation in the Romance of the Rose and the Divine Comedy turned up for sale. My doctoral dissertation that is.

I was kind of surprised, since although we are publishers, we haven't gotten around to publishing my own work. Yet here it was, for sale on ABE, big as life.

The seller goes by the name of "Discantus", gives his location as Majadahonda, Spain and gives no other contact information anywhere, not even on his "own" website. I was more than curious about how he obtained a copy of my unpublished dissertation, so I sent him an email query. I told him that my dissertation was copyrighted, that I was not dead, and the work was not in the public domain. I asked him by what right he was copying it and selling it without my permission. I asked him to remove it immediately from ABE and any other place on which it was listed. What I got back was a couple of emails I can only describe as arrogant. Basically he said that if he could list my work, he could sell it. He seemed to have no knowledge of or care for the International Copyright Convention. In the meantime, I took another look at his stock.

Turns out he had listed every single doctoral dissertation that was being stored in UMI's (the University of Michigan's) database. He had millions of listings on ABE, and over 20,000 alone from my own university.

I contacted Richard Davies, the public relations guy at ABE (he is the only person whose telephone number is readily available) and told him what I could see, i.e. that "Discantus" was selling stolen property on their site, a lot of it -- not only my dissertation, but millions of others.

Richard was charming and polite, but ABE's first reaction was not what I wanted to hear. They said they had no responsibility for their listings being legal. They were only offering a place for sellers to sell their wares and their job was not policing the listings. I was really surprised that they hadn't noticed such a suspicious seller -- obviously somebody posting millions of listings is getting them from somewhere en masse. I told them that I felt pretty strongly about my dissertation being stolen and then sold publicly on their site. When a car dealer sells stolen cars, and they are notified about the stolen cars, do they not share legal liability? How did they think millions of other doctoral students across the country would feel about their work being stolen and sold for a profit on ABE?

At first I got no reaction, and my conversation with UMI was not a whole lot better. They told me that they couldn't control somebody just going into their ill--protected site and stealing the data on it. Moreover, since they were eventually selling copies of dissertations to "Discantus", they, like ABE, were profiting from the theft, so they seemed pretty unmotivated to stop it.

Rare Book Monthly

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