Copyright should be an author’s right (part 1)

It seems like such a simple point.  And the rhetoric of authors’ entitlement to the fruits of their labors has always been prominent in copyright debates, although it was usually on the lips of printers and publishers whose real concerns were much different.  Two very different articles have once again led me to reflect on the importance of keeping authors (broadly defined as anyone who actually creates the intellectual property that is subject to copyright) at the forefront of copyright discussions and decisions.

First there are these stories about file-sharing of scholarly articles amongst medical researchers – one from the Chronicle of Higher Education here and the other from Techdirt here.  The Chronicle is particularly scolding in its tone, and it evokes the misnomer “piracy” in its title.  But aside from that commonplace rhetorical strategy, I want to emphasis two points raised by these reports.

First, the estimate of how much money journal publishers would lose by this practice, which the Chronicle sets at $1.4 million per year, should be taken with a ton of salt.  As has become very well known in recent times, these estimates are usually built on false assumptions.  The recording industry, for example, often assumes that each unauthorized song download costs the industry the full price of a CD.  But there is no reason to believe that that is true; the consumer might be unwilling to pay for an entire CD to get one song and prefer to forgo the music altogether or pay to download a single track if the free option were not available.  Likewise, an article shared over a peer-to-per network does not translate to a lost subscription or even, necessarily, to a lost per-article fee.  We just do not know how much access would be worth to a consumer, and the copyright monopoly has prevented us from ever getting reliable market data.

Second, we should remember that there is a big difference between music file-sharing and the swapping of academic journal articles.  In the latter case, academics are on both ends of the transaction; they are the authors as well as the consumers of the articles that are exchanged.   If it were not for the academic practice of giving away copyright to publishers, this would be no big deal at all.  Because of the lack of a financial incentive for academic authors, file-sharing of academic articles causes no economic lose to producers.  What makes it newsworthy, and, from the academic point of view, necessary, is that copyright is held by entities other than the authors.  By transferring copyright wholesale, instead of granting temporally-limited licenses to publish, academic authors have help create the access problem they are now trying to solve with file-sharing networks.  That doing so is potentially an infringement of copyright is evidence of how harmful this practice has become to the fundamental mission of colleges and university.

And this gets me back to the point about copyright as an author’s right.  For copyright to function, it must serve the needs of creators; if it does not, its fundamental purpose, which is to create incentives that encourage authorship and other forms of creative expression, is defeated.  When academic authors give away their copyrights, and then have to resort to “illegal” file-sharing to get access to fundamental research, the copyright system has broken down.  Only by reclaiming their copyright entitlement can academic solve this problem.

In a few days I will look at this problem of copyright as an author’s right from a very different perspective, based on an article about the finances of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

One thought on “Copyright should be an author’s right (part 1)”

  1. The author of the original study estimated that an article cost $30.00 on average and then extrapolated the $1.4 million number based on the number of articles exchanged in a 6-month period. So I think he took care of the problem of assuming that sharing one article resulted in the loss of an entire subscription, but several other questions remain. How did he decide that $30.00 was the right average price? Was it valid to extrapolate the year’s loss from the 6 months of figures that were available to him? Did any of the viewers or requesters already have access to the article or articles they viewed? He does point out that one cannot establish the financial impact on publishers based on one article and one site.

    For what it’s worth, the author of the original study is a signatory to the Budapest Open Access Initiative. He also makes the point that “many of the most illuminating discussions [about open access to journals] are occurring in journal contributions that are not accessible, except by payment,” and cites articles from Nature and the Lancet as examples.

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