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A thesis statement ...

March 27, 2008 |  4:30 pm


The University of Iowa caused a bit of a dust-up recently by changing the terms for graduate theses -- to make them “open access,” available online, for free, to anyone. Students in the writing program, one of the country’s most prestigious, balked.

Seth Abramson, an Iowa MFA student in poetry, blogged that he didn’t intend to turn over "first North American serial rights to any creative work I should produce … [toward] the completion of an MFA thesis." (Yep, he used to be a lawyer.)

Author James Hynes, who has attended the Iowa writer’s workshop and taught there, also protested, noting: "The copy of my thesis in the Iowa Graduate Library … is the final draft of my first published novel, 'The Wild Colonial Boy.' "

Eventually, the issue was resolved: The Chronicle of Higher Education reports (sorry, registration is required for the article) that the university will not publish theses from students in the writing programs as open-access documents.

Not all college students are so lucky. Many top film schools -- including USC's -- hold the rights to their students’ final projects. George Lucas is rumored to have resorted to stealing the negative to his short film “Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB” from the school. That worked out OK for him -– it became the basis for his first feature, “THX 1138,” starring Robert Duvall. But the university now makes sure to keep closer tabs on its students' work.

Carolyn Kellogg

That doesn't seem quite fair. In fact, there are many strong arguments to be made to protect students' rights to their own creative wok. But there was one that didn’t ring entirely true: that by providing written work for free on the Internet, it would be devalued.

Try telling that to OK Go, the indie rock band that went from struggling to well-known on the strength of one viral video. (Or even, these days, Rick Astley, who's back on people's minds because of widespread Internet irony.)

Internet freebies seem to have enough potential that publishing is giving them a try. Take the recent case of "Beautiful Children." Publisher Random House decided to make PDFs of Charles Bock’s debut novel available for free for 72 hours, even as the book's sales had been doing fine. Was it a success? Well, Random House said that it tallied about 15,000 downloads. Not sure what that might mean for long-term sales, but it surely seems to be spreading the work far and wide.

Maybe making a thesis available online might be worth a try ... for 72 hours, for starters.

Carolyn Kellogg