Copyright Protection for Academic Works: A Bad Idea, But Who’ll Bell The Cat?

Richard Posner has written yet another interesting critique of patent and copyright law; it includes a remark of particular interest to me:

At the other extreme is academic books and articles (apart from textbooks), which are produced as a byproduct of academic research that the author must conduct in order to preserve his professional reputation and that would continue to be produced even if not copyrightable at all. It is doubtful that there is any social benefit to the copyrighting of academic work other than textbooks, which require a lot of work and generally do not enhance the author’s academic reputation and may undermine it.

Posner is exactly right. When it comes to academic works like research monographs and journal articles copyright law is a severe handicap for the creator(s). Restrictions on copying, distribution, and the making of derivative works all work against the author(s) because every one of these restrictions ensures that the most valuable outcome to be derived from an academic work is inhibited: readership is limited as is the central ‘income’ forthcoming from a reputation economy. In most academic works, copyright passes to the publisher; as every aspiring academic comes to realize quickly, one of the essential steps in getting an article or a book published is the signing of the copyright release (or transfer) form; the ‘work’ is no longer yours; step back and observe another entity control access to material that only benefits you if access to is unrestricted and indeed, positively facilitated.

Unfortunately, reform in this domain appears unlikely because the academic world is run by the terrible trio of Promotion & Tenure Committees, ‘Prestigious’ Academic Presses & Journals, and Pompous Seniors Who Refuse To Take the Lead. And animated by the Matthew Principle.  Till P&T committees start to recognize work published in non-traditional venues, and concomitantly, the ‘prestige’ associated with traditional academic presses and journal publishing groups comes to be associated with them, not much will change in the current situation. Much good would be done if senior academics, those with tenured full professorships at  Famous Universities[tm] start publishing their work in non-traditional venues like open access journals and new presses committed to open access books. They have plenty of wealth to spare in this reputation economy; junior academics would benefit a great deal from their largesse in this domain. Their hoarding and accumulation does little to change matters, and ensures the perpetuation of an archaic and ultimately counterproductive model of academic publishing. .

Note: While Posner is not critical about copyright protection for textbooks, some textbooks in my field, philosophy, are anthologies of material available in the public domain, with little value added by the editors (perhaps some discussion questions). These are then marketed at exorbitant prices. I remain hopeful that as more public domain philosophy is digitized and placed online, these textbooks will be phased out in the near future.  And of course, more importantly, many anthologies bear the price they do because they include copyrighted material for which fees have to be paid: excerpts from journal articles or books, which should never have been copyrighted in the first place.

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