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.