Government Property, Public Property

The arriving faculty workshop at West Point continues, with an interesting briefing several days ago from USMA’s intellectual property attorney. The primary point of the briefing had to do with contracts and copyright, and it was this: any intellectual property I produce while at West Point in my official capacity as a faculty member, government employee, and representative of the United States Army does not automatically inhere to me as it would under conventional copyright law. Instead, inasmuch it is produced in the service of the United States Government, it is immediately released into the public domain.

Yeah. Wow. And, given my views on intellectual property, I think that’s pretty cool, although the IP attorney’s acknowledgement of the forthright application of institutional hegemonic force was a little unsettling: most of the time around here, they hide the iron behind velvet for civilian faculty.

There are other implications, as well. Ethical regulations make very clear that I can’t use my position as a West Point faculty member to push a book or an essay, which of course would seem obvious until one raises concerns (as I did with the IP attorney) of context and venue: essays published by West Point faculty in Military Review carry considerably different appeal and considerably different connotative freight from those published in Rethinking Marxism.

The thing that’ll be most difficult for me to get used to, however, is that I won’t be able to ask my students — plebe cadets, this first semester — to make a choice about the status of their essays as intellectual property. Anything they write in and for my class is instantly released into the public domain, and they therefore don’t have to engage with the concerns of choice, motivation, and textual ownership that have lately been so important to me.

Unless, of course, we begin to productively blur the line between work performed in an official capacity and work performed in a personal capacity. Like an institution-wide cadet blogging initiative might do.

Hmmm.

Government Property, Public Property

5 thoughts on “Government Property, Public Property

  • July 27, 2006 at 11:21 pm
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    Don’t you think that given the face that they are cadets that perhaps they’ll see that release as part of their duty? Do you think that they’ll even consider that? And what do you mean by “instantly released” into the public domain? Do you mean potentially?

    Are you worried that this may inhibit them?

  • July 27, 2006 at 11:45 pm
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    Well, here’s the deal: the revision Congress made in 1976 to copyright law says that any work you produce “in fixed form” is protected as intellectual property under copyright law. It belongs to you, whether it’s a doodle on a cocktail napkin or a doctoral dissertation. You can sue people who make improper use of it. But public domain work belongs to everybody, and people can do whatever they want with it. So the official status of me, my fellow instructors, and the Corps of Cadets means that the ideas and writing we produce while in that status is not copyrighted: it belongs to everyone. Which is different from the ideas and writing you produce, which belong to you unless you very explicitly say otherwise.

    The “part of their duty” thing is probably the most interesting and vexing question. “Duty” itself is almost a floating signifier here: a cadet’s failure to turn in homework can be (and often is) constructed as a dereliction of duty, something rather grave for a would-be officer. I’d say cadets have a duty to serve their country — but part of that duty is learning how to make choices about what sorts of property, intellectual or otherwise, belongs to whom.

  • July 28, 2006 at 12:29 am
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    Sounds like a wild gig you picked up there Mike. I’ve been away from civilization for most of the last two weeks–rafting down the Main Salmon in central Idaho–and hadn’t checked in for awhile. It sounds like you’ve got a lot of learning to do. I love the point about the two journals you made. Something tells me it wasn’t an expected question or comment. I hope you can keep blogging about teaching at West Point. I think you can provide some great insights to those of us, those who like myself came of age in the mid-70’s and eschewed anything and everything military (No way would I ever have qualified for an academy), about academic life and general living in such an environment. And helicopter flights as part of the workday to boot–too cool.

  • July 28, 2006 at 11:48 am
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    I see. You’re most bothered by the fact that in this type of environment, they will not have the opportunity to exercise the choice of whether to share their work, that they have no ownership over it.

    Is this something that they know already or is telling them part of your responsibility?

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