Copyright from the lens of reality
May 7, 2015
This post is a response to Copyright from the lens of a lawyer (and poet), posted a couple of days ago by Elsevier’s General Counsel, Mark Seeley. Yes, I am a slave to SIWOTI syndrome. No, I shouldn’t be wasting my time responding to this. Yes, I ought to be working on that exciting new manuscript that we SV-POW!er Rangers have up and running. But but but … I can’t just let this go.
Copyright from the lens of a lawyer (and poet) is a defence of Elsevier’s practice of having copyright encumber scientific publishing. I tried to read it in the name of fairness. It didn’t go well. The very first sentence is wrong:
It is often said that copyright law is about a balance of interests and communities, creators and users, and ultimately society as a whole.
No. Copyright is not a balance between competing interests; it’s a bargain that society makes. We, the people, give up some rights in exchange for incentivising creative people to make new work, because that new work is of value to society. To quote the US constitution’s helpful clause, copyrights exist “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” — not for authors, but for wider society. And certainly not of publishers who coerce authors to donate copyright!
(To be fair to Seeley, he did hedge by writing “It is often said that copyright law is about a balance”. That is technically true. It is often said; it’s just wrong.)
Well, that’s three paragraphs on the first sentence of Elsevier’s defence of copyright. I suppose I’d better move on.
The STM journal publishing sector is constantly adjusting to find the right balance between researcher needs and the journal business model, as refracted through copyright.
Wrong wrong wrong. We don’t look for a balance between researchers needs (i.e. science) and the journal business model. Journals are there to serve science. That’s what they’re for.
Then we have the quote from Mark Fischer:
I submit that society benefits when the best creative spirits can be full-time creators and not part-timers doing whatever else (other than writing, composing, painting, etc.) they have to do to pay the rent.
This may be true. But it is totally irrelevant to scholarly copyright. That should hardly need pointing out, but here it is for those hard of thinking. Scholars make no money from the copyright in the work they do, because (under the Elsevier model) they hand that copyright over to the publisher. Their living comes in the form of grants and salaries, not royalties.
Ready for the next one?
The alternatives to a copyright-based market for published works and other creative works are based on near-medieval concepts of patronage, government subsidy […]
Woah! Governments subsidising research and publication is “near-medieval”? And there we were thinking it was by far the most widespread model. Silly us. We were all near-medieval all this time.
Someone please tell me this is a joke.
Moving swiftly on …
Loud advocates for “copyright reform” suggest that the copyright industries have too much power […] My comparatively contrarian view is that this ignores the enormous creative efforts and societal benefits that arise from authoring and producing the original creative work in the first place: works that identify and enable key scientific discoveries, medical treatments, profound insights, and emotionally powerful narratives and musical experiences.
Wait, wait. Are we now saying that … uh, the only reason we get scientific discoveries and medical treatment because … er … because of copyright? Is that it? That can’t be it. Can it?
Copyright has no role in enabling this. None.
In fact, it’s worse than that. The only role of copyright in modern scholarly publishing is to prevent societal benefits arising from scientific and medical research.
The article then wanders off into an (admittedly interesting) history of Seeley’s background as a poet, and as a publisher of literary magazines. The conclusion of this section is:
Of course creators and scientists want visibility […] At the very least, they’d like to see some benefit and support from their work. Copyright law is a way of helping make that happen.
This article continues to baffle. The argument, if you want to dignify it with that name, seems to be:
- poets like copyright
- => we copyright other people’s science
- => … profit!
Well, that was incoherent. But never mind: finally we come to part of the article that makes sense:
- There is the “idea-expression” dichotomy — that copyright protects expression but not the fundamental ideas expressed in a copyright work.
This is correct, of course. That shouldn’t be cause for comment, coming from a copyright lawyer, but the point needs to be made because the last time an Elsevier lawyer blogged, she confused plagiarism with copyright violation. So in that respect, this new blog is a step forward.
But then the article takes a sudden left turn:
The question of the appropriateness of copyright, or “authors’ rights,” in the academic field, particularly with respect to research journal articles, is sometimes controversial. In a way quite similar to poets, avant-garde literary writers and, for that matter, legal scholars, research academics do not rely directly on income from their journal article publishing.
Er, wait, what? So you admit that scholarly authors do not benefit from copyright in their articles? We all agree, then, do we? Then … what was the first half of the article supposed to be about?
And in light of this, what on earth are we to make of this:
There is sometimes a simplistic “repugnance” about the core publishing concept that journal publishers request rights from authors and in return sell or license those rights to journal subscribers or article purchasers.
Seeley got that much right! (Apart from the mystifyingly snide use of “simplistic” and the inexplicable scare-quotes.) The question is why he considers this remotely surprising. Why would anyone not find such a system repugnant? (That was a rhetorical question, but here’s the answer anyway: because they make a massive profit from it. That is the only reason.)
Well, we’re into the final stretch. The last paragraph
Some of the criticism of the involvement of commercial publishing and academic research is simply prejudice, in my view;
Yes. Some of us are irrationally prejudiced against a system where, having laboriously created new knowledge, it’s then locked up behind a paywall. It’s like the irrational prejudice some coal-miners have against the idea of the coal they dig up being immediately buried again.
And finally, this:
Some members of the academic community […] base their criticism on idealism.
Isn’t that odd? I have never understood why some people consider “idealism” to be a criticism. I accept it as high praise. People who are not idealists have nothing to base their pragmatism on. They are pragmatic, sure, but to what end?
So what are we left with? What is Seeley’s article actually about? It’s very hard to pick out a coherent thread. If there is one, it seems to be this: copyright is helpful for some artists, so it follows that scholarly authors should donate their copyright to for-profit publishers. That is a consequence that, to my mind, does not follow particularly naturally from the hypothesis.