Getting off the copyright merry-go-round

Congress has been talking a lot recently about the farm bill and war spending. But amidst all that rhetoric and wrangling, some copyright work has also been done in the past two weeks. For one thing, the House passed the so-called PRO-IP bill last week, fortunately without its most troubling provision. One of the major provisions of that bill as proposed was an amendment to the copyright law that would have allowed much larger damage awards for infringement. As I wrote some while ago, this was a huge grab at more money for the recording industry especially, but that provision was dropped in the House-approved version. Now what PRO-IP would largely do is further bloat the federal bureaucracy (in a way opposed by the Justice Department) for IP enforcement.

Perhaps balancing out this sop to special interests, Congress has also been working on the Orphan Works bills, discussed earlier here. The Senate version, called the Shawn Bentley Orphan Works Act, was unanimously reported out of the Judiciary Committee on May 15, although it is clear that negotiation about some of its provisions is still going on. The House version, which includes the objectionable “dark archives” provision, is still being marked up in the House Judiciary Committee; whether that provision will remain is something I just don’t know right now. But I do know that several issues remain in controversy in both houses, specifically the language addressing state sovereign immunity and the role of Copyright Office certified statements of “best practices” in defining the scope of a “qualifying search” that would afford a user the shelter of the orphan works reduction in liability.

Amidst all this give and take about copyright, the question ought to be asked whether any of these incremental changes will really make much difference. From the perspective of higher education, at least, there is a sense of tinkering around the edges of a severely broken system. PRO IP simply creates more bureaucracy and further trumpets the “sky is falling” approach to copyright of the entertainment industry. Orphan works is an area in which real reform is sorely needed, but one can legitimately ask if the bills being considered would actually work; the bills may be so laden with expensive and unnecessary hoops to be cleared that they will not make truly beneficial uses of orphan works any more possible or likely. Another example of this futility may be found in the recently concluded work of the Section 108 Study Group: although the Study Group’s report raises some interesting and key issues, it was only able to reach agreement to actually recommend minor changes that will not make much real difference. Instead of waiting for reforms that never come in any helpful way, it may be more fruitful in higher education to ask ourselves how we might simply get off the copyright merry-go-round.

The answer, of course, is in open access to scholarship, and there may be some recent developments that point a direction for encouraging open access as an alternative to the current system of copyright protection for commercial monopolies. An article in this month’s College & Research Libraries News by David Lewis, Dean of the Library at IUPUI, forcefully asserts that it is time for libraries to stop putting more and more money into the bloated and dysfunctional journal publishing system and to move funds to support open access infrastructure and venues. His article proposes specific steps that libraries can take to move off the endless cycle of higher journal prices that leads to less money for monographs and overall reduced access. He is suggesting an important step to get us off the copyright merry-go-round.

A major obstacle to open access, however, has always been resistance from faculty, for whom the system usually seems to work just fine. Tenure and promotion have been built around the core of commercial publishing, and it is very hard to communicate the reasons for moving away from that core. Until now. With the lawsuit filed against Georgia State by three major publishers, a real opportunity has arisen to show faculty members that giving copyright away to publishers primarily interested in share holder profit, not dissemination of knowledge, is no longer in their own best interests. At its root, this lawsuit challenges what faculty members, who provide the content for scholarly publications, want to be able to do with their own work and the work of their colleagues – communicate it to students. If the copyright system determines that they cannot do that without paying yet more money on top of the exorbitant prices charged to buy the works back initially, perhaps there will be a general recognition that they should not freely give that content away in the first place. A return to first principles would remind faculty that these works belong to them unless and until they choose to give them away, and that they are free to negotiate the terms of any transfer of copyright. Ironically, this lawsuit’s frontal attack on a core value in higher education may prove to be the best weapon yet to move scholarship off the increasingly dangerous and unstable copyright merry-go-round.