May 012012
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Safeguarding copyright protects university revenues too.

by John Degen

Should professors retain their copyright?  To someone who thinks copyright is one of freedom's great rewards (that would be me), the question 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

Nothing about the academic economy of publish or perish greatly resembles a true democracy.

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 is 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, and 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?

About John Degen

John Degen has professional freelance writer for more than twenty years, as a poet, novelist and critic. His 2006 novel, The Uninvited Guest, was shortlisted for's First Novel Award. He currently works for the Ontario government, administering grant support to the province's literary book publishers, cultural magazines, writers and literary festival producers. He speaks and writes regularly about copyright issues related to writing and publishing.

© Copyright 2012 John Degen, All rights Reserved. Written For:

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