A followup on Elsevier’s defence of scholarly copyright

May 11, 2015

In response to my post Copyright from the lens of reality and other rebuttals of his original post, Elseviers General Counsel Mark Seeley has provided a lengthy comment. Here’s my response (also posted as a comment on the original article, but I’m waiting for it to be moderated.)


Hi, Mark, thanks for engaging. You write:

With respect to the societal bargain, I would simply note that, in my view, the framers believed that by providing rights they would encourage creative works, and that this benefits society as a whole.

Here, at least, we are in complete agreement. Where we part company is that in my view the Eldred v. Ashcroft decision (essentially that copyright terms can be increased indefinitely) was a travesty of the original intent of copyright, and clearly intended for the benefit of copyright holders rather than that of society on general. (I further note in passing that those copyright holders are only rarely the creative people, but rights-holding corporations whose creative contribution is negligible.)

You continue:

[Journal] services and competencies need to be supported through a business model, however, and in the mixed economy that we have at the moment, this means that many journals will continue to need subscription and purchase models.

This is a circular argument. It comes down to “we use restrictive copyright on scholarly works at present, so we therefore need to continue to do so”. In fact, this this is not an argument at all, merely an assertion. If you want it to stick, you need to demonstrate that the present “mixed economy” is a good thing — something that is very far from evident.

The alternatives to a sound business model rooted in copyright are in my view unsustainable. I worry about government funding, patronage from foundations, or funding by selling t-shirts—I am not sure that these are viable, consistent or durable. Governments and foundations can change their priorities, for example.

If governments and foundations decide to stop funding research, we’re all screwed, and retention of copyright on the papers we’re no longer able to research and write will be the least of our problems. The reality is that virtually everyone in research is already dependent on governments and foundations for the 99% of their funding that covers all the work before the final step of publication. Taking the additional step of relying on those same sources for the last 1% of funding is eminently sensible.

On Creative Commons licences, I don’t think we have any material disagreement.

Now we come to the crucial question of copyright terms (already alluded to via Eldred v. Ashcroft above). You content:

Copyright law was most likely an important spur for the author or publisher to produce and distribute the work [that is now in the public domain] in the first place.

In principle, I agree — as of course did the framers of the US Constitution and other lawmakers that have passed copyright laws. But as you will well know, the US’s original copyright act of 1790, which stated its purpose as “encouragement of learning”, offered a term of 14 years, with an optional renewal of a further 14 years if the author was still alive at the end of the initial term. This 14-year was considered quite sufficient to incentivise the creation of new works. The intent of the present law seems to be that authors who have been dead for 70 years still need to receive royalties for their works, and in the absence of such royalties would not have created in the first place. This is self-evident nonsense. No author in the history of the world every said “I would have written a novel if I’d continued to receive royalties until 70 years after my death, but since royalties will only last 28 years I’m not going to bother”.

But — and this can’t be stated strongly enough — even if there were some justification for the present ridiculous copyright terms in the area of creative works, it would still say nothing whatsoever about the need to copyright scientific writing. No scientific researcher ever wrote a paper who would not have written it in the absence of copyright. That’s what we’re talking about here. One of the tragedies of copyright is that it’s been extruded from a domain where it has some legitimate purpose into a domain where it has none.

The Budapest Open Access Initiative said it best and most clearly: “the only role for copyright in this domain [scholarly research] should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited“. (And several of the BOAI signatories have expressed regret over even the controlling-integrity-of-the-work part of this.)


See also David Roberts’ response to Seeley’s posting.


5 Responses to “A followup on Elsevier’s defence of scholarly copyright”

  1. “[Journal] services and competencies need to be supported through a business model”

    false premise to begin with – we as a society can easily support them through government funding, if we want to. After all, where’s the business model of police?

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thank you, Heinrich, you make an important point. The increasingly ubiquitous neoliberal political philosophy can make us all susceptible to accepting such unsupported assertions unthinkingly. Lots of the things we do, we do because they’re intrinsically worthwhile, not because they make a profit. See also: schools, hospitals, having children, etc.

    (Neoliberalism is a particularly stupid term for a political doctrine that is neither new nor liberal, but we seem to be stuck with it.)

  3. Peter Suber Says:

    Hi Mike. Thanks for your clear and correct response to Elsevier’s position. You may be interested in my 2012 debate with Mark Seely on many of the same topics.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Peter, for the kind words and the link. Much appreciated!

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