Who owns my sauropod history paper?
October 13, 2010
Here is an oddity. When the Geological Society sent my the PDF of my sauropod-history paper, their e-mail contained the following rather extraordinary assertions:
We are pleased to provide you with 20 free electronic reprints of your recently published paper to distribute as you wish. These reprints are available as PDF downloads and are available from the following URL http://sp.lyellcollection.org/cgi/reprint/343/1/361.pdf?ijkey=CuTipeiHIhUaWsR&keytype=finite
Please note the following important points
1. These electronic reprints may NOT be used for commercial purposes or posted on openly accessible websites, and are subject to the terms and conditions described here: http://www.geolsoc.org.uk/gsl/site/GSL/author_terms
2. You may forward this message to your co-authors or colleagues in order for them to access the paper also, but do remember that access is restricted to a TOTAL of 20 PDF downloads (unless you otherwise have subscription access to the content). Non-subscribers may purchase additional downloads on a pay-per-view basis.
I think, and I hope you will all agree with me, that the idea of providing a finite number of “electronic reprints” is profoundly misguided and patently unenforcible. But let’s skip blithely around that and focus on the core issue.
In general, I find it iniquitous that when authors freely contribute their work to journals and books — especially books as spectacularly expensive as the Dinosaur History volume — the publishers try to restrict those authors’ rights to give copies of their own work to their friends and colleagues. It’s just wrong. It should be enough that we allow them to publish and sell our work for no fee; that they should then limit what we do with it is — well, I hate to repeat myself, but I can’t think of a better word than: wrong.
The scourge of copyright assignment
Publishers can pull this kind of stunt because they own the work. In short, they can do what the hell they want with it. And the reason they own the work is because we blindly hand over copyright to them. We’ve been doing it for years; decades for those of us who’ve been in the game longer.
Why do we do this?
I know I’ve mentioned this before [Choosing a Journal, Time for the Revolution] but there really is no justification at all for publishers to require authors to sign copyright over to them — yet this practice remains ubiquitous. And there is no justification for us to keep on rolling over and giving them what they want — yet we do.
Why do we do this?
(I know I already asked that question, but it bears repeating.)
Well, they don’t have this one!
As I went to fill in the ubiquitous copyright assignment form for the history paper, I noticed that it offered a choice between two sections:
As an alternative to the usual “I hereby assign to the Geological Society of London full copyright and all rights” clause (section 2 of the form above), it offers section 3 as follows:
3. To be filled in if copyright does not belong to you
(b) The copyright holder hereby grants the Geological Society of London permission to publish the said contribution in paper, electronic, and facsimile formats, and for electronic capture, reproduction, and licensing in all formats, in whole or in part, now and in perpetuity, in the original and all derivative works and also grants non-exclusive rights to deal with requests from third parties in the manner specified in paragraphs 2 and 4 below.
So I formally transferred copyright to my wife, Fiona:
And filled in section 3 of the form instead of section 2. Of course, there is no earthly reason why they shouldn’t offer copyright-holding authors the option of just giving the Geological Society the rights it actually needs, but since they don’t do that I was happy to take advantage of the loophole.
And that is why I happily encourage you to download as many copies of the PDF as you wish — have twenty-one of them just for yourself if you like. It’s mine, I can give you as many copies as I wish. It’s my wife’s, and she’s granted me a non-exclusive licence to give you as many copies as I wish. [Thanks to DK Fennell for this correction.]
Happy ending, right?
Well, no, actually. For two reasons.
First, the really extraordinary thing about this is that the published version of my paper includes the copyright statement above, at the bottom of the first page, asserting that the work is copyright the Geological Society of London even though I carefully took explicit steps to ensure that this is not the case.
How did that happen? I can only assume that the Society, like other publishers, is so used to everyone just blindly signing away copyright that they used their standard boilerplate without even bothering to look at the form I returned to them. That speaks all sort of bad things. The world has become a twisted place.
The second reason this isn’t really a happy ending is that I don’t feel great about having retained copyright on a technicality. We, the authors, shouldn’t have to sneak around giving copyright to our spouses and avoiding the Great Giveaway by means of stealth. We ought to be simply and flatly refusing to give away copyright when it’s perfectly clear that the publisher doesn’t need it in order to publish. (Publishers often use language like “In order to expedite the editing and publishing process and enable Wiley-Blackwell to disseminate your Contribution to the fullest extent, we need to have this Copyright Transfer Agreement executed“, but we all know that’s not true.)
So what should we do?
I can see three ways we can avoid giving publishers total ownership of our work.
- Simply don’t submit to journals that require copyright transfer. Most do, but not all. Among the honorable exceptions are the PLoS journals, and Zoologica Scripta. If any of you know of others, please shout in the comments.
- If using publishers that do require copyright transfer, look for weasely strategies such as the one I used for the history paper; but better is:
- Just refuse. Publishers know they don’t need copyright, and there is an established form for withholding it: the SPARC Addendum. I’ve not used that before, but it’s time I started.
We must have been mad to have handed over all our stuff for all these years. What the heck were we thinking? Time to start taking it back — so we can give it to the world. After all, the main reason I want to retain my copyright is so that the publisher can’t require me not to post the PDF freely on my own website, and I am sure the same is true of 99% of scientists who want to retain their copyright.
Publishers must not be allowed to be a barrier to the dissemination of science!