Let’s Implicate the Librarians, Too

A PhD student’s thesis gets pirated — and the reporters should have asked the librarians how they allowed it to happen

A recent story on 1 News in New Zealand tells the tale of a successful PhD candidate whose thesis was posted to his institution’s OA repository and promptly lifted by pirates, who began peddling it as a book without his permission, involvement, or knowledge.

Throughout the story, the pirates are squarely in the crosshairs of the reporters, and that’s fine. They should be.

However, two major enablers of this form of IP theft are never mentioned — the librarians behind the repository, and their misplaced devotion to a confused pastiche of OA principles (including author-retained copyright).

First, a quick summary of Hayden Thorne’s predicament.

According to the Figshare-hosted page of the Victoria University of Wellington Open Access Institutional Repository, Thorne’s thesis was posted on September 12, 2022, and copyright claimed on September 13. However, because there is no mechanism in New Zealand to register copyrights, this date is incorrect as theoretically copyright was granted when Thorne typed his first words.

Nowhere on the repository page leading to the Figshare page is the copyright established. The PDF of the work also does not state that the thesis is copyrighted. These two missing claims to copyright indicate that the repository was not built to support author copyright assertions, and that Thorne was not counseled by the library or its guides to stamp his thesis with a copyright notice. As a result, if Thorne were to go after a pirate on grounds that his work was copyrighted, he’d first have to contend with the issue that his copyright assertions weren’t plainly visible to a typical user on 2 out of 3 public spaces where those assertions might reasonably be expected.

Even then, Thorne has little hope to recover anything over a purported copyright violation. Unlike in the US, there is nothing in New Zealand law establishing statutory damages — making someone pay just because they broke the law — and proving actual damages would be very difficult, especially as the story shows that the only known purchase of the pirated book was by Thorne, and he’s receiving a refund.