Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Masters and Doctors sue CNKI

Here's an interesting case: 104 writers of master's and doctoral thesis are suing the China National Knowledge Infrastructure database (CNKI) [China | US mirror site] in Chaoyang District, Beijing for putting their theses on line without their permission. According to the plaintiffs, CNKI (operated by a company called Tong Fang, which to the best of my knowledge is owned by Tsinghua University), obtained copies of their theses, scanned and digitized them, and made them available for downloading, all in order to make high profits. They are seeking an apology and compensation.

I'm not an expert in copyright law, but if CNKI didn't get the authors' permission, it looks like a pretty open-and-shut case to me. But I want to talk about the business issue, not the legal one. It seems obvious to me that CNKI should have adopted a different business model. Instead of publishing the theses without seeking permission or paying for them, CNKI should have contacted the authors and offered to put the theses on line if the authors paid CNKI. Let's face it: very few master's and doctoral theses are really worth publishing. Academic authors in China regularly pay to get published in certain journals. If CNKI had treated its web site as a publication opportunity for the authors, to be withheld from them unless they paid, the authors probably would have done so happily - especially given that the database for master's theses was called "Full-Text Database of Outstanding Chinese Master's Theses" (中国优秀硕士学位论文全文数据库). That's exactly the kind of thing people are often willing to pay for.

I'm curious - do my Chinese readers agree with this analysis?

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American readers agree. But you asked Chinese readers.

Posted by: Joseph | Nov 7, 2008 7:54:35 AM

As to whether authors should have to pay for the digitization of their theses, I don't know what the business model for ProQuest's Dissertation Abstracts (UMI) in the US is, but it might be illuminating. Just a thought, anyway.

Posted by: Glenn Tiffert | Nov 7, 2008 3:13:05 PM

I should make clear that I was half-kidding in my post. I was referring to the psychological tendency to value what we are charged for. Thus, I don't think it's a question of what authors should or should not have to pay for. If someone tells an author that they will digitize his thesis and offer it to the public for a one-time, special low price, the author might be inclined to pay; if the same person tells the author that they propose to digitize his thesis without permission and offer it to the world, the author will feel that he has been deprived of income that was rightfully his.

Posted by: Don Clarke | Nov 7, 2008 5:27:40 PM

In China, academics do pay regularly to get published on journals, partly because of the rigid requirement made by school authorities about annual publication. But CNKI does not qualify as publication.

Further, even CNKI market itself of publication opportunities, the authors should have the right to choose whether or not to publish on it. Whereas, currently, CNKI not only give itself access to the papers but also make the authors publish compulsorily.

Considering China’s poor protection on IP, publication opportunity at CNKI is not that attractive. First, it does not count as publication by official standard. Second, it means that others could have access to your paper at very low cost and it gives rise to possibility of being plagiarized.

No wonder the students sued. Now they might lack the connection and money to get published. But if CNKI makes their paper public, they might lose the opportunity to publish forever.

Posted by: Julie Zhang | Nov 13, 2008 8:04:23 PM

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