3.16.2005

Bullshit and copyright: In late February, I blogged a 131-word excerpt of Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit." It's a great essay, but I quoted the dullest part, just the set-up, to encourage reader's to go to his site to view the whole thing. Written in 1985 as a relatively overlooked essay, it's gained relevance of late, and the Princeton press is now making it into a book. This morning, Frankfurt wrote me the following email:
Dear Mr.Smelzer:

It has come to my attention that you have placed a copy of my essay "On Bullshit" on your website. I appreciate the compliment.  As you may know, however, the essay has recently been published as a book by the Princeton University Press. The management of the Press and I are concernedthat your use of my essay may interfere with sales of the book. In any case, it constitutes a clear infringement of my copyright.  I must ask you, therefore, to remove the essay from your websiteas soon as possible.

Sincerely,
Harry Frankfurt
I'm glad the essay is getting mileage, and I respect the author's and press' right to make a buck (or just under nine, as it's priced on Amazon). But, really. Has Frankfurt never quoted another author in his scholarly work? Or does his work--or any other academic's--spring fully formed from his skull, independent of previous writings and publicly shared thought? My understanding of copyright is that the founders created it to balance the rights of authors to make a living with the need of society to make cultural products available so others can build on and improve them.That's why the law allows for "fair use" in general and selected quotation in particular.

But I'm no expert, so I asked NYU's Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of Copyrights and Copywrongs, among others, to weigh in. Succinctly put, "He's full of Bullshit." According to both the 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style and Sec. 107 of USC Title 17, says Siva, my excerpt is fair use and, therefore, fair game.

But beyond that: won't the minimal publicity I've given the essay actually help Frankfurt gain a few more cents in royalties? And if it doesn't, how bad of a dent could I put in his precious profits, considering my site gets, literally, 50-some hits a day. And, finally, isn't this kind of petty letter a web meme in the making, a way to draw attention away from his scholarship and toward his apparent moneygrubbing? I have no beef with Frankfurt--except for his misspelling of my name (where's my grading pen?)--but I'm curious what his reply to me will be.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Um, given the subject matter, Occam's Razor says he's just bullshitting you.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like he thought you were hosting the entire essay, not just an excerpt, which would make his request reasonable.

scott said...

Unless his essay is about 150 words long (which it isn't), then he's got a point. But he doesn't. A rule of thumb I was always taught was to limit excerpts from others' work to 200 words. After that, seek permission from the author or that person's publishers. Here's a good article on fair use:

http://www.nolo.com/article.cfm/catId/DAE53B68-7BF5-455A-

I can't see how your blog entry about Frankfurt's book would detract from its sales, unless you were really negative about it. Frankfurt seems to be infected with the BS virus himself.

Anonymous said...

That he can't check his facts beforehand doesn't excuse the moron...

l-train8 said...

It would make his request reasonable if Mr. Schmelzer were actually publishing the complete essay. But just because he thought that was the case doesn't make his actions reasonable. It means he's too lazy to bother to actually look at the website before writing a nice letter accusing Mr. Schmelzer of commiting a crime.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised by the idea that Professor Frankfurt would object to the posting of a short excerpt of his essay. When I clicked on the link to your original post, you did indeed have a short excerpt posted there, but you also had an offsite link to what had been the full text of his original essay. That link now only has an excerpt and a referral to the book at Amazon.

It would seem that Professor Frankfurt thought you had posted the entire essay which was expanded into his new book and was asking you to take it down. It doesn't seem as though he was objecting to your excerpt. I think your indignation may be slightly misplaced.

matt leclair said...

Actually, Frankfurt is right for the wrong reasons. After hearing about the book on The Daily Show, I was inclined to pick it up, but seeing that he is being a jerk about the quote there's no chance. So yeah, the blog did hurt sales! Maybe he should follow up his book with a sequel, On Being an Idiot.

Christopher Grau said...

I received the same email, and I think that Frankfurt was given an incorrect list of email addresses, perhaps by Princeton University Press. My own page had a brief excerpt and then merely LINKED to a copy of his essay that used to be online. When I wrote and explained this to him, he responded with a gracious apology. Accordingly, don't be too quick to assume he actually wanted you to take down your excerpt. Like many senior philosophy professors, I suspect he isn't all that web-savvy, and was merely following (bad) orders.

Regardless, his essay is still wonderful and the book is worth buying.

Paul Schmelzer said...

Ditto to Christopher's last point. And, in case you missed my last post, here's a note from professor Frankfurt. It seems there was a bit of a misunderstanding, for which I apologize for my part:

Dear Mr. Schmelzer,

I've looked at your site, and I have no objection to the excerpt from  my essay that is presented there.  I apologize for any suggestion that  you might have done something improper.  Indeed, I am grateful to you  for the honor that your attention to my work does me.

Harry Frankfurt

Anonymous said...

When I click on the link given in the blog, I get a long thing about 7000 words long.

That's a long extract.

Good to hear he's penitent when the situation is explained.

Anonymous said...

You linked to what looks like the entire text of the original essay. That's probably why someone (author/publisher) got upset.

Anonymous said...

Linking isn't illegal, is it? Wasn't Bill O'Reilly's linking case laughed out of court?

Anonymous said...

Plus blogging is essentially linking? Is it copyright infringement to link to a full New York Times article? No.

Anonymous said...

No, linking is not illegal or infringement. But the original post made it sound as if the point of contention was the 131 words. Whereas it may also have been the 7000 words. Anyway - looks like it's all sorted out.

jill bryant said...

i just read about this on boing boing and i think you should correct the wrong impression you are giving. as another comment said, from his letter it is obvious he thought you posted the essay.

and the comment that said he should do his own research doesn't know the situation - perhaps he was given a long list by his publisher and had no reason to think they would've had the information wrong. from what i saw on jon stewart he seemed to be a quiet man who was surprised they even wanted to put his essay out. i don't know what the situation is, but i wouldn't prejudge. there are SO MANY @ssholes out there, i am in no hurry to add to that list.

and then - to top it off, he sent a very gracious apology for the misunderstanding (as it obviously was). mistakes happen and isn't someone who acknowledges his mistake refreshing considering the administration we're dealing with.

Anonymous said...

So what's the deal of the link u have up there? is it the whole book or just other essay? i'm confuse now

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