Tuesday, April 24, 2012

should professors retain their copyright?

To someone who thinks copyright is one of freedom's great rewards (that would be me), the question in the headline seems a no-brainer. Of course, every single writer should retain her copyright as much as possible and for as long as possible. To me, it's like asking should professors continue to eat nutritious foods? should they seek the advice of doctors? avoid smoking in bed? take care of their pets?

Short answer to all questions... yes, they should, and they especially should take a more proprietary role in the safeguarding of their copyright.

Do they? Not really. Professors regularly assign copyright for scholarly writing to academic journal publishers and/or to their academic institutions (and these are often the same entity). Should this practice be a problem for other writers who do keep their copyright -- independent, non-academic, general interest writers making a living in the challenging writing and publishing economy?

No, that should not be our problem; yet, increasingly, we are being told by free-culture theorists that it is our problem.

In the last couple of days, I've been referred again and again (by free-culture true believers) to articles in The Observer and The Economist - articles purporting to blow the doors wide open on a previously well-hidden scandal within academia. Apparently - shock and outrage! - publicly funded universities are expected to pay high subscription rates for academic journal subscriptions for which their own professors provide the content, and to which they assign all their rights under copyright. This really is news only to someone who has not paid attention to university life since, say, the 1600s, but let's overlook the extraordinary lateness of this complaint.

The Observer calls academic publishing "a racket of monumental proportions... milking the taxpayer for decades." The Economist says it's "a licence to print money... [that] also hampers education and research." Can you believe that the only directly attributable revenue from academic copyrights is going to the publishers, and that professors have to depend on pricey subscriptions to access the work they and their colleagues have created for free?

Well... duh. That's kind of what happens when you give away a valuable resource without asking for anything in return, or when you waive control over a right you would like to continue to control.

Writers and publishers outside the academy did not create the publish or perish economy that exists inside the academy. We did not whisper into the ears of professors that their copyright was worthless in comparison to the notice and reputation-bump they would receive through publication, and we certainly never argued that a tenured teaching position is the golden reward for a life of the mind. For those who value copyright and their own writing, one's work is one's reward. Academics trade their work away at their own peril.

What's the alternative?

Free-culture would have us believe the only answer is open-access academic publishing - a complete revolution within the ivory towers, with professors refusing to publish in expensive academic journals and instead remaking the system from the ground up, so that their work is more freely shared and more democratically valued.

Okay... or, professors could just, y'know, not give away their copyright.

They could use this universally declared human right (UDHR, Article 27.2), to which they have recourse the moment their pens hit paper, in order to negotiate a better deal for their schools, for their students and for themselves. Furthermore, by retaining their copyright, professors could earn royalties through collective licensing, thereby reducing their financial dependency on the tenure system, increasing their financial independence at the same time as they increase their intellectual independence

After all, the free-culture, "democratic" option comes with a bunch of added elements ranging from the unrealistic to the downright frightening. To begin with, nothing about the academic economy of publish or perish greatly resembles a true democracy. Talk to any professor. At best, the reward system within higher education is a tightly-controlled meritocracy that absolutely depends on some being bigger and better than most others. It is, of course, ridiculously ironic that the free-culture theorists now calling for a more democratic form of academic publishing are themselves sitting comfortably in unassailable, tenured, full-professorships (well, most of them... sorry, Sam Trosow) and Canada Research Chairs, positions which would not exist without that self-same very tightly-controlled meritocracy.

All of this comes at the same time that no less than Harvard University has announced that its academic journal subscriptions are no longer sustainable. Over at Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow has (hilariously) suggested that Harvard will go broke if academic publishing doesn't go open-access, quoting someone named Henry (I guess we're just supposed to know who that is) about "extortionate access fees for academic journals."

Harvard University. In Cambridge, Massachusetts. Go broke. That's what Doctorow said. You can't make this stuff up.

Though some may rage against the current economics of academic publishing, and fling insults at the major players, the fact remains there actually is no free lunch. The so called "racket" of academic publishing may not be as surprising and scandalous as all that. I took a quick look at two Canadian academic publications in my natural line of interest. Neither Canadian Poetry nor Canadian Literature are published by scary, monolithic, off-shore publishers. They are, respectively, the product of The University of Western Ontario and The University of British Columbia.

Neither of these journals sports an institutional subscription rate in the tens of thousands of dollars (like those reported on in the Brit press) - CanPo is $25 annually for libraries, CanLit is $168, entirely reasonable prices given their places of central importance in the intellectual lives of university and college libraries. What's more, both of these journals hold copyright on the work inside them, which means the universities themselves hold copyright, which means the universities themselves receive copyright royalty payments (probably from Access Copyright) when the works are copied. How do you like that?

One might argue that these meanie publishers (the universities themselves, remember) are benefiting from the free writing of professors, but who is paying the professors? Going open-access for CanPo and CanLit means only one thing - no more copyright royalties going back into the academic economy. So, who does that help, exactly? Tuition is going to go down because of this? Salaries up?

The scariest part of all this open-access talk comes from the same two articles that started this discussion. Both The Observer and The Economist enthusiastically advance schemes in which publicly funded scholarly writers would be forced to waive a human right and go without choice into open-access publication. In effect, the state would mandate that writers give up their copyright and, with it, all rights to work of the mind they themselves created -- work that could very well be extremely valuable in the long run.

Doesn't that sound gloriously open and free?

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Thank you, as always, to The Devil's Artisan for their wonderful collection of public domain woodcut images.


Careygrrl said...

Hi John,

No offense to Canadian poetry and literature journals, but that's not where the money is. I think the "racket" is more around the massively expensive STM (science, technology and medicine) journals like Science and Nature which are hiking prices annually to the tune of 100% to 300%, and which are purchased not my academics but by libraries, and so academics often have little idea of the cost. As with textbooks, it's a broken market and should be repaired.

What's more, much of the research included in these STM journal articles is paid for by taxpayer-funded national grants, and the benefits of such research are also more collective. While I agree with you that authors can and should negotiate to keep their copyright (the SPARC/CARL author addendum is one such resource http://carl-abrc.ca/en/scholarly-communications/resources-for-authors.html), there is also a strong argument for sharing the research either pre- or post-publication to enable the faster and more efficient circulation of important research findings through institutional repositories, open-access journals, and other resources accessible to all.

Ostensibly, academics don't research only for prestige and personal gain but also for common benefit through increased knowledge - and enjoy public monies in the process. Publication is, in this case, a means vs. an end. That is important to remember when distinguishing between different kinds of publishing.

John said...

Hello Careygrrl,

I don't disagree that there are cost variances that could be examined. I think it's an oversimplification to say the journal or textbook markets are "broken," and especially an oversimplification to say that open access will be the fix to said brokenness.

I think retention of copyright and the introduction of a real economy around it within academic publication would be a very subtle mechanism for tweaking that market.

Ownership does not mean the owner cannot share. It just means they continue to own and control even while sharing.

Jack said...

Hi John,

In this case I'm having trouble following the logical leap from the linked items to the economics of writing and publishing outside of academia ... and to academics being asked to waive copyright to their works by the open-access movement.

What the Economist piece calls for is a requirement that publicly funded research be made available to the public for free. That isn't necessarily a waiver of copyright -- it's more like an expectation of a particular license in exchange for the provision of funding. It can be argued against as a labour issue, but it needn't be a state-mandated blanket waiver of copyright.

Open Access journals vary widely in terms of the approach they take to author rights. Some mandate obligatory creative commons licenses. Others take a straightforward single-purpose license for free online publication, but leave the author's other rights intact. This distinction has been codified as gratis open access (free online availability but author reserves almost all other rights ... the author owns and controls while sharing) vs libre open access (author waives most rights and relinquishes control).

A mandated gratis open access publication would involve no forfeit of rights. Mandated libre open access, or the notion that public funding=public domain ... that's much scarier.

The SPARC/CARL addendum is curious because it focuses on non-commercial rights. Why shouldn't an author retain commercial rights as well if a publisher is not exploiting them?

Personally, I'm cautiously optimistic that open access movements within academia can actually help professional writers protect their copyrights. It sounds paradoxical, I know. But if an open access paradigm is used for scholarly works which are fully funded by public/charitable support (and which would, in the private sector, be considered work for hire without any rights accruing to the writer), it makes it even easier to argue the rightness and necessity of fair compensation regimes for works that are created without public support, or with the assistance of arts grants which never cover the full cost of creating a work nor take any legal stake in the final product. If peer-reviewed scholarly journals may be used freely, then commercial works may not.

Rather than fighting what happens within academia out of fear that it might spill beyond its borders, we need to work to emphasize the division between works of scholarship created within the academic economy, and the myriad creative and commercial works that happen outside of that context.

Within academia, reputations are income and it's reasonable to consider them a part of a transaction. Outside of academia, they aren't in any reliable sense. That distinction matters in this debate, and we need to keep mentioning it every time things spill over the edges.

John said...

Thanks for that comment, Jack.

I don't think others pushing Open Access are at all as subtle as you have been in avoiding complete waiver of copyright.

Combine that fact with the ever increasing pressure to expand fair dealing the lines between the academic and commercial models are already blurring.

I do think another important distinction - that copyright helps with - is in this question of publicly funded research and public access. I think you hit on it as well with your mention of commercial rights.

The research work, the time for the writing... these are the things that public funding pays for. I think it's inaccurate, and a little bit scary, to expand that to say the funding is paying for the end product - the expression. Individual expression that is so tied to reputation should never be work for hire.