misce stultitiam consiliis brevem

Mathematical non-games

The world of Algebraic Geometry (to which I have personal but absolutely no professional ties) is kind of tempest-tossed at the moment. I wouldn’t be suprised but what a number of you would enjoy thinking about and commenting on what’s going on.

In brief, lay terms, as I have heard it, there was this brilliant young French mathematician in the 1950s by the name of Alexandre Grothendieck who all but single-handedly revolutionized/created certain fields of Algebraic Geometry. Some 10-15 years later, he gave up academic life, moved to the Pyrrenées, and became a sheep farmer.

Since Grothendieck’s disengagement, his body of work has remained wildly useful and has formed a bedrock for later mathematical generations. The respect accorded to his own writings has gone so far as to inspire its own personal Distributed Proofreaders analogue for creating a TeX version of a long systematic work, “Séminaire de Géométrie Algébrique” (or SGA). The free electronic SGA project has been ongoing for the better part of a decade or more; volumes SGA 1 and SGA 2 are up on the arXiv already.

It seems just possible that might not be true much longer.

Behold the text of the until-recently-current webpage for the SGA 4 project:

Alexandre Grothendieck a malheureusement souhaité que cessent les travaux de réédition de SGA. Les pages qui étaient consacrées sont donc closes.
Dernière actualisation : 2 février 2010.

There is slightly more information, and much discussion, at Scott Morrison’s post on the Secret Blogging Seminar, a group math weblog. Again in brief (and English), Grothendieck apparently resurfaced enough to put out a letter stating that he doesn’t want his work republished or translated.

And he wags his finger at anyone who has done so or wants to.

Which is the really weird part. Assuming the letter is genuine, what legal ramifications does it actually have? Why use a phrase like “unlawful in my eyes,” which sounds to me deliberately obfuscatory? (Legality is not a matter of an individual’s vision.) The comments on the SBSeminar post seem weighted towards arguments as to the moral dimensions of Grothendieck’s stated wishes and a given mathematician’s obligation to respect them (or not). To me, the legal questions are more pressing and pertinent. Whether one has a moral obligation to respect an author’s wishes is a decision one makes for oneself. Whether the mathematical community as a whole has a legal obligation to take Grothendieck at his word has greater ramifications–and probably a single, findable answer (unlike a question of personal morality).

Edixhoven, one of the prior leaders of the TeX SGA project, did research the distribution question through the publishers and was told copyright had in fact reverted to the original authors (as he states on the linked page). This seems to indicate Grothendieck is not out of line to say he withholds his permission. But the questions only start there. …

Some on the SBSeminar comment thread made the “glass half full” suggestion that maybe it’s time SGA got a revamp anyhow. Yet the original is still a precious resource. I’ll be interested to try to follow what decisions are made.


4 Comments so far

  1. Quirk February 11th, 2010 2:26 am

    According to my local algebraic geometers who’ve been talking about this, Grothendieck really does have copyright, as it reverts to the authors after some years. He also didn’t try to pull all of his works, only the ones that he hadn’t already published himself, which are the ones he now has copyright to. Not only that, but there’s some question as to what happens to his estate when he dies; if he dies without passing it on, then it’s presumed his restriction holds until the work passes out of copyright into the public domain. So then they’re speculating about which country enforces copyright laws in which ways.

    There are still hard copies of SGA; it seems they’re not going anywhere, and will still be cited. I’m not an algebraic geometer myself, though, so this is just passed on because it’s the talk of part of the department. 🙂

  2. Kevin February 11th, 2010 3:00 am

    I found the ethical argument in the SBseminar comment thread so interesting that I jumped in. 🙂

  3. Ed February 11th, 2010 2:25 pm

    Hah. I was actually in the process of writing a story involving a mathematician who spends time wandering around in France looking for Grothendieck.

    I think the “unlawful in my eyes” is part of a general attempt on his part to separate himself from institutions. I imagine that, insofar as his intent is cogent, it is not particularly legalistic.

  4. Jinnayah February 11th, 2010 4:58 pm

    Quirk, actually, hard copies do go somewhere: specifically, the way of all flesh. What if the originals were not printed on acid-free paper? I’ve worked in library conservation (although it’s my husband who brought up this particular keep-you-up-at-night scenario) and I have seen 20-year-old books crumble. 200-year-old books (if they survived this far) are generally fine, since it was only in the late-19th century that papermaking got cheap, but it’s far from unthinkable that these hard copies were not made to last. You seem also to have heard that Grothendieck has copyright to not just his unpublished works, but also his published ones, so that he can block (and has blocked) reprinting.

    Ed, thanks for the link. I have so far resisted going to Wikipedia over this and, as I am not a member of any mathematical community, the letters to which you link are the first other compositions of Grothendieck’s I’ve read. Said letters make it all the more tempting to go out and look for sources on the man, despite that that seems to be exactly what he’s asked everyone NOT to do!

    I also want to tell some author friends or idols of mine about the situation, partially for inspiration to them, but also because this tempest’s existence at all has a lot to do with the connection of readers to authors. What do we owe them? What do they owe us? What do they owe the world?

Leave a reply