Sunday, February 14, 2016

Kate Taylor on academics and copyright

Toronto journalist Kate Taylor will no doubt be facing a storm of personal abuse from the "fair dealing" lobby, particularly in the academy, for her sensible reflections on copyright and academic integrity in the Globe and Mail.
When I talk to academics about copyright infringement, they lecture me about sharing “knowledge” and “information” as though writing was just about stacking up facts. They complain about the price of books and journals, and they rant about greedy textbook publishers. But they never explain to me why the power of the Internet can’t be harnessed to clear copyright before posting, or why writers outside of academe should be penalized for what some scholars consider the failings of academic publishing...  [Barnard]... has exposed the lie that scholars who download books without permission are somehow copyright’s victims.
The other striking part of her column is her mention of
salaried academics – who don’t care much about copyright since they usually hand theirs to their publishers
Why are academic writers so blase about throwing away the rights of authorship?  I'm mostly not talking about money here, but about the complete "surrender" or "cession" or "transfer" of rights that is so commonly put into academic press contracts, and so meekly accepted by most academic authors.

The American Authors' Guild recent circulated some sensible advice for those who publish with academic publishers:
Most trade publishers do not ask for an outright assignment of all exclusive rights under copyright; their contracts usually call for copyright to be in the author’s name. But it’s another story in the world of university presses. Most scholarly publishers routinely present their authors with the single most draconian, unfair clause we routinely encounter, taking all the exclusive rights to an author’s work as if the press itself authored the work: “The Author assigns to Publisher all right, title and interests, including all rights under copyright, in and to the work…”
Bad idea. As Cornell University’s Copyright Information Center advises, “When you assign copyright to publishers, you lose control over your scholarly output. Assignment of copyright ownership may limit your ability to incorporate elements into future articles and books or to use your own work in teaching at the University.” And those are by no means the only potential problems. That’s why we admonish authors never to assign a copyright to a publisher or to allow a book’s copyright to be registered in any name but the author’s.
Of university presses' reasons for seeking to appropriate authors' rights, the Authors' Guild cheerfully declares: "Not one of these rationalizations passes the giggle test."  And they further report: "every author we know of who requested to retain copyright was able to get the publisher to change the agreement."

Kate Taylor thinks it's important for scholars not to be complicit in academic piracy. But when I venture into the world of university presses, I often encounter this headscratcher: my academic friends may not want to stand up for other people's rights, but why wouldn't they stand up for their own, particularly when they have nothing to lose.

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