Coursera, the fast-growing, for-profit online education company, has become, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “an investor’s pet.” It has pulled in $85 million in venture funding over the last two years, attracting big-name investors like Kleiner Perkins and the World Bank’s VC arm, LearnCapital.
Those millions aren’t enough, apparently, to pay translators to help the company extend its online courses, or MOOCs, into foreign markets. Instead, Coursera is taking the digital sharecropping route. It announced this week that it is recruiting skilled translators and asking them to donate their work to the company for free. What the volunteers receive, in lieu of income, is the satisfaction of being a member of Coursera’s “community.” Translation, says the company, is “much more than a means to an end. By joining the GTC [Global Translator Community], you’ll become a member of a tight-knit community of committed individuals and organizations.”
You’ll also sign a contract stating that
YOU EXPRESSLY AGREE THAT ANY TRANSLATION SERVICES YOU PROVIDE WILL BE DEEMED A “WORK FOR HIRE,” UNDER SECTION 101 OF THE U.S. COPYRIGHT ACT, IN EXCHANGE FOR GOOD AND VALUABLE CONSIDERATION, THE SUFFICIENCY OF WHICH IS ACKNOWLEDGED.
The work-for-hire provision of the copyright act transfers copyright ownership immediately and irrevocably from the author of a work to the company contracting for the work. Just in case there’s any gray area about the translator’s work-for-hire status, there’s also this clause:
IF, AND TO THE EXTENT UNDER APPLICABLE LAW, YOU MAY BE ENTITLED TO CLAIM OWNERSHIP OVER ANY PART OF THE TRANSLATIONS, THEN YOU HEREBY TRANSFER, GRANT, CONVEY, ASSIGN, AND RELINQUISH EXCLUSIVITY TO COURSERA ALL OF YOUR RIGHT, TITLE, AND INTEREST IN AND TO THE TRANSLATIONS PURSUANT TO COPYRIGHT OR ANY OTHER APPLICABLE LAW IN PERPETUITY OR FOR THE LONGEST PERIOD OTHERWISE PERMITTED BY LAW.
Of course, the translator will receive “good and value consideration” — i.e., membership in the GTC. It’s charity without the charity.
Geoff Shullenberger puts the program into perspective:
We should not be surprised, but should be troubled, that Coursera is now recruiting “volunteers” to “translate top courses into their native languages.” Yes, that’s right, a for-profit company, instead of hiring and paying professional translators, is using the rhetoric of volunteerism (“community,” “partner organizations,” “contributions”) to obtain that labor for free. ”Why translate” for Coursera? Because “you are helping millions of learners who may otherwise struggle to understand courses taught outside their native language.” After all, “video subtitle translations can increase course enrollments among speakers of the translated language by up to 200-300%.” Oh yes, and that increased enrollment increases the value of our company, and we get to pocket 100% of the additional revenue brought in.
Actually, “digital sharecropping” probably isn’t the best term to describe this particular arrangement. It’s one thing for social networks like Facebook and Twitter to build their businesses on the unpaid contributions of their members. The members are simply socializing, after all, and they’re deriving social benefits from their “playbor.” In social networks, as I noted in a 2006 post, the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy. Translation is not play; it’s work — and skilled work at that. What Coursera is doing seems more like plain old chicanery.
UPDATE: Shullenberger thinks we need a new term: “the voluntariat.” It’s the proletariat but without the wages.
Image: San Jose Library.