Scholarly copyright: grotesque, pointless impediment, or fatuous waste of time and effort?

February 20, 2016

In the world of novel-writing, people spend their own time creating art — writing. Creative works come into being, and their copyright is (at least initially) owned by the creators. This gives them a legal monopoly on copies of their own work, which they can exploit either directly (by selling copies) or indirectly (by selling the copyright itself to a body that will make that money back over time by selling copies). Either way, the creators get paid, which recompenses them for the time they spent creating, and gives them both the incentive and opportunity to create more.

That may be an idealised version of how things work, but it’s basically right.

In the world of scholarship, things work very differently. Researchers write papers, and their copyright is (at least initially) owned by the creators. The creators then give the copyright to publishers, often even paying the publishers for the privilege. The publishers — whose job, remember, is to “make public”, which is what “publish” means — then do the exact opposite of their job, and lock the research behind a paywall. Copyright is then hidously perverted, and becomes a means of preventing people from accessing that research. Progress is retarded; diseases flourish; lives are lost.

In this scenario, none of the intended goals of copyright are achieved. The researcher is not financially compensated for her work, because she doesn’t own the copyright. She receives no incentive to do more work, because her income has always been grants from the public purse and from charities.

In this model, the sole purpose of copyright is to prevent access to the research. The only thing it achieves is to stop people from reading, using and re-using the work.


[Image from here.]

On Friday, I had the privilege of speaking about open access at a PG Cert course at Manchester University, Open Knowledge in Higher Education. Since I was there I took the opportunity to stay and listen to the other speakers. I heard two intelligent, committed library professionals talk about their jobs in guiding scholars through the maze of twisty little copyright passages that is imposed on them: helping researchers to find free-to-reuse content, to stick within the limit of what’s considered “safe” fair dealing (i.e. nearly none), to avoid arousing the ire of the Copyright Licensing Agency. It fair broke my heart. What a ridiculous waste of everyone’s time and effort.

Just like the time and effort I’ve wasted seeking permission from publishers to reproduce and modify illustrations from others’ papers — in some cases, illustrations that are over century old. A waste of my time, and a waste of the publishers’ time. (And I’m one of the lucky ones: the publishers have at least graciously allowed me to do this every time I’ve asked so far. I’ve heard stories of scholars being charged £1000 for permission to re-use their own illustrations.)

Scholarly copyright is not merely a net negative. Every single aspect of what it does is a negative. Its value is not the sum of plusses and minuses that come out on the minus side of the balance sheet. It’s a sum of minuses. In the scholarly arena, copyright is pure damage.

This, of course, is why the original Budapest Open Access Initiative, back in 2003, declared:

The only role for copyright in this domain should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.

And it’s why the ten-year anniversary document reasserted the same thing in exactly the same words.


13 Responses to “Scholarly copyright: grotesque, pointless impediment, or fatuous waste of time and effort?”

  1. dale Says:

    Great article. So. How do you propose to get around it other than creating one or more journals associated with each and every science ?

  2. Charles Oppenheim Says:

    Good article, summarising the frustrations scholars experience. Nit picking, the organisation’s name is “Copyright Licensing Agency”. On fair dealing, librarians tend to be cautious about making use of it and other exceptions, such as library privilege (“privilege” is a strange word to use in this context, but so be it). They could be much more assertive in using these exceptions. So in part, the librarians have created their own difficulties. But your fundamental point remains valid.

    [Mike says: thanks, Charles, I corrected “Authority”]

  3. Michael A Says:

    The problem is that currently open access journals in my field are absolute rubbish. Peer review and editorial work are kind of non-existing.

  4. jeffollerton Says:

    Interesting perspective and I fully agree with the waste-of-time argument (though clearly scholarly publishers would disagree!)

    Your comment that “Researchers write papers, and their copyright is (at least initially) owned by the creators” jumped out as universities in the UK are increasingly trying to claim that all intellectual property (including copyright of published works) of research conducted by their employees belongs to the institution, not the individual. Ditto teaching materials. It’s a worrying trend, though so far it seems that universities are primarily concerned with IP that can generate substantial income, e.g. patents.

  5. protohedgehog Says:

    Reblogged this on Green Tea and Velociraptors and commented:
    Mike Taylor on the damage that copyright does to research: “In this model, the sole purpose of copyright is to prevent access to the research. The only thing it achieves is to stop people from reading, using and re-using the work.”

  6. protohedgehog Says:

    Great post as always, Mike. I wrote about this recently in the context of Sci-Hub too: “If copyright law is being used to prevent sharing, learning, and education, then what the hell good is it for??”

  7. coppenheim Says:

    Re jeffollerton’s comment: in UK law, if an employee creates something as part of their employee duties, then the employer automatically owns the © in that output. In practice, though, scholars’ employers have traditionally been content to let the scholar own the copyright. I have often expressed surprise that academic institutions have not exercised their rights more, though it would be hard for them to do so in an institution where in the past they’ve failed to exercise them. Institutions claiming © on employee outputs, whether research papers or teaching materials, is not illegal. Not sure I agree this is a worrying trend. If (and I admit, it’s a big “if”) employers make use of their ownership of © in employee materials to negotiate better deals with publishers, that would be a good thing.

  8. jeffollerton Says:

    Thanks for the comment. I’d love to see this tested in a court of law; for example, if I use personal photographs taken on a holiday (which I have done in the past) for a lecture, can the university claim ownership of the copyright of that image?

  9. coppenheim Says:

    The crucial thing is “did you do the creation as part of your employee duties?” If you took the photo for the sole purpose of helping your teaching, then arguably the employer owns the ©. If you took the photo for your own purposes, but it happens to be a useful addition to the teaching you do, then it doesn’t. The law is pretty clear on this, but employers choose not to exercise their rights. For example, if an academic moved to another institution, the previous employer could in theory insist that all teaching materials created as part of employee duties remain with them, but they choose not to do this, so the academic is free to re-use the stuff in their new employment.

  10. jeffollerton Says:

    OK, at the moment the institutions choose not to, but I wonder if that will continue in the future? It’s only recently that I’ve started to see universities explicitly publishing their IP policies – see this from Glasgow for instance:

    The mention of “electronic” is telling and could relate to the rise of distance learning courses, MOOCs, etc.

  11. […] Friday afternoon at Manchester University library, giving a couple of taks about open access, and hearing several others about copyright. It was fascinating being a room full of librarians, all of them aware that Sci-Hub is out there, […]

  12. […] that. From this perspective, it’s more important to obey a copyright law which is achieving the exact opposite of what it was intended for, than to help a third-world researcher struggling under an oppressive […]

  13. […] Vertebra Picture of the Week (SVPotW) there have been a number of posts recently discussing scholarly copyright with reference to recent media and general academic attention paid to the pirate site Sci-Hub, […]

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