Should Copyright Be Abolished On Academic Work?

from the makes-sense dept

We’ve discussed a few times over the years how copyright gets in the way of academic work. Journals (who get all of their writing and reviewing totally for free) insist on holding the copyright for those works in many cases. I’ve even heard of academics who had to redo pretty much the identical experiment because they couldn’t even cite their own earlier results for fear of a copyright claim. It leads to wacky situations where academics either ignore the fact that the journals they published in hold the copyright on their work, or they’re forced to jump through hoops to retain certain rights. That’s bad for everyone.

However, at least some are recognizing the problem. Christopher points us to a new paper, which questions if copyright law should be abolished for academic papers:

The conventional rationale for copyright of written works, that copyright is needed to foster their creation, is seemingly of limited applicability to the academic domain. For in a world without copyright of academic writing, academics would still benefit from publishing in the major way that they do now, namely, from gaining scholarly esteem. Yet publishers would presumably have to impose fees on authors, because publishers would not be able to profit from reader charges. If these publication fees would be borne by academics, their incentives to publish would be reduced. But if the publication fees would usually be paid by universities or grantors, the motive of academics to publish would be unlikely to decrease (and could actually increase) ? suggesting that ending academic copyright would be socially desirable in view of the broad benefits of a copyright-free world. If so, the demise of academic copyright should be achieved by a change in law, for the ‘open access’ movement that effectively seeks this objective without modification of the law faces fundamental difficulties.

The whole paper is well worth reading, and it makes a very compelling case (admittedly, I’m already a strong believer in the harm done by copyright in many instances) as to why copyright makes no sense in the academic setting, and likely causes a lot more harm than good. Beyond showing why abolishing copyright on academic works wouldn’t decrease output, it also suggests that it would lead to nuermous additional benefits as well, that come with more freedom in sharing ideas, which speeds further ideas and innovation. The last bit, suggesting why the “open access” movement isn’t enough is also quite interesting. While I’ve always paid attention to the “open access” people, I hadn’t given it too much thought. The paper though, does outline some key problems with the open access push as it stands today, and shows how the goals of the open access movement would be much better accomplished not through such a system, but in getting rid of copyright on academic research entirely.

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Comments on “Should Copyright Be Abolished On Academic Work?”

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33 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Academic works should be available under some alternative licensing scheme. Take, for example the innovation that came from the 1960s Space Race. Many innovations were created and brought to market as a result of a core ideology which focused on innovation over protectionism. This is very similar to what occurs within the realm of academia today.

Also, as a side note, I wonder if it’s any surprise that it was shortly after the Space Race that we saw expansion on IP and copyright after the Space Race. Perhaps there exists some research and linkage to this phenomenon, and I’d be very interested if anyone can dig some research up.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“Perhaps there exists some research and linkage to this phenomenon, and I’d be very interested if anyone can dig some research up.”

The link your looking for is between NASA’s employing former Nazis and their being imported by the US Govt. The name of the link (one of its names at least) is Operation: Paperclip. We’ve been leaking Democracy into a Fascist cup ever since.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Hate to tell ya this, Doofus, but if it’s in the public domain then it doesn’t need and in fact can’t be licensed.

Hate to get you up to speed, Dumbass, but CC0 is both a waiver and a license because not everyone is convinced that a simple declaration that something is in the public domain is strong enough in certain cases and jurisdictions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Hate to get you up to speed, Dumbass, but CC0 is both a waiver and a license because not everyone is convinced that a simple declaration that something is in the public domain is strong enough in certain cases and jurisdictions.

Well, since this is a US centric blog, I was referring to US law and that probably that of the 163 other countries that are party to the Berne Convention. So if you’re not just absolutely full of shit, then which other “jurisdictions” are you referring to?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I know, old blot-post here. But just to make the record more complete:

You want a juriscition? Germany. If you literally translate the German copyright law, it would translate to “author- or creator- or originator-law”. So it centers around the one who created the work, not on copy-rights. However, the originator of a piece of work never changes and he/she cannot give up this status. ?29 UrhG makes that clear. Technically, there is no public domain, except for material whos creator has been dead for more than 70 years.
The originator of the work can give free unlimited rights to use the material to anybody, even indefinitely, making the work practically public domain as in the US sense of the law. But technically he cannot give up his “originator-right” according to german law.

Anonymous Coward says:

First, I have to laugh at the idea of academics who don’t understand the basic concepts of copyright. It goes a long way to expalin the idea of “those who can do, those who can’t teach”.

Second, the copyright should still be theirs to start with, and they should be granting only single use publication rights to the journals. If they are stupid enough to sign their work over to a journal instead of retaining their rights, then they are fools (see point above).

It seems to me that they are allowing the Journals to dictate terms that are unreasonable.

Steve R. (profile) says:

Publishing No Longer Necessary

I will admit to not reading the entire paper, but based on the first few pages the argument for non-copyright is a bit off. It is off since Shavell has not asked the question of whether publishers are even needed and appears to be discussing his copyright viewpoint based on the necessity for publication, and the expense the publisher has to endure for publishing.

Shavell wrote “The conclusion that I draw from the foregoing is that if publication fees would be
largely defrayed by universities and grantors, as I suggest would be to their advantage….”
and “The conclusion that I draw from the foregoing is that if publication fees would be largely defrayed by universities and grantors, as I suggest would be to their advantage.”

Technology, has solved our need for a publisher. We no longer need the publisher. The fact that we continue to submit material to a publisher simply represents old thinking. Publications can now be published electronically by the researchers themselves with the University library acting as a repository for that research. This also essentially eliminates the costs of production.

What is the difference between having a hard copy of a book occupying space in some obscure dust covered rack or an electronic book, just as long as it isn’t a Kindle. None.

In fact, electronic versions of material can be searched much more efficiently than a hard copy version, so there is another benefit to not going to a publisher.

Hopefully Shavell has made some of these observations further into his paper.

RKinner (profile) says:

Re: Publishing No Longer Necessary

As long as the paper is properly peer reviewed (something the publisher now arranges), I see no problem with self publication. The review process MUST be complete or the publication loses credibility.

Many professional organizations such as the IEEE do publish works and could coordinate the peer review process. However, such groups use publishing as a way to generate funds for the traditional journals costs and to offset other activities. That is a topic that is being discussed in many of these groups but until a new renevue stream is identified, it will be slow going.

LostSailor (profile) says:

Re: Publishing No Longer Necessary

STM (science, technical, medical) journal publishing tends to be a little more involved than that. The vast majority of researchers and authors in this area have long relied on publishers to render their texts properly, first in print, and then electronically. Those authors have no interest in learning the complexities of markup; for example MathML (an XML markup language for mathematics) that is used to correctly present complex formulas.

It has been suggested that university libraries could take over this role, but their budgets are being slashed as it is and they’ve shown no inclination to do so. The experience with institutional repositories also tends to suggest that the output of STM literature would likely suffer.

Publishers still add value. And there are currently many experiments in Open Access journal publishing where the literature is available free of charge and sometimes free of reuse restrictions as well. Of course, all of them are subsidized at the moment and have yet to prove to be self-sustaining.

Anonymous Coward says:

Copyrights but not patents

I’m not sure why a Uni would want a copyright on research since they’re all in it together and citing others research is VERY important. I can understand having a patent as my state Uni holds/held patents on stemcell/vitamin D infused milk/lots of other stuff. The uni funnels all that money back into more research, not only that, but in-state resident students have over 1/2 of their tuition covered through these funds.

Todd says:

Re: Copyrights but not patents

Unfortunately, universities are NOT all in it together.

There may be some camaraderie between scientists and researchers at various universities, but universities are also in competition with each other for research dollars, students, talent, and intellectual reputation. There are many in academia who handle this gracefully and with openness and they are a credit to their fellows. There are many who operate with suspicion and isolationism and hold back progress. Even within a single university, various departments compete against one another for dollars and students. They may be all in it together, but that does not mean they always act in their collective best interest.

LostSailor (profile) says:

What's Academic?

Aside from the vanishingly slim chance that Congress would change copyright law for only one type of content, who’s to decide which content is academic and which isn’t? You’d be looking at shades of gray that would rival what determining what is considered fair use is today.

Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen. The best that could be hoped for is that publishers be convinced that it’s in their best interest to not assert copyright. And there is already work, as I noted above, being done in this area.

Frankly, if a sea change to open publishing is going to happen, it will first happen in the scholarly publishing sector.

Michael Ho (profile) says:

academic authors usually give up their copyrights anyway...

basically, the question of whether copyrights “should” be abolished comes down to: “do academic authors really want to re-write their publications for ‘open’ journals?”

Academic researchers already give up their copyright ownership when they fork over their submissions to private journals. The ideas are still “open” — but the authors would have to re-write their papers for open publications. So researchers are obviously willing to give up their copyright ownership. Journals may not be, tho.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: academic authors usually give up their copyrights anyway...

“Academic researchers already give up their copyright ownership when they fork over their submissions to private journals.”

Those who do so are likely relying on the advice of legal counsel who are generally clueless how to achive a result that retains copyright with the author while giving journals free rein to accomplish their business objectives without any impact on their bottom line.

IEEE was the worst offender I had to deal with (there were many others almost as intransigent), but it took only a few minutes of discussion with its representatives to turn the issue around once it was explained how changing the allocation of rights would effect them not a whit. It is not at all difficult to turn an “issue” into a “non-issue” if you know what you are talking about in both a business and legal sense.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: academic authors usually give up their copyrights anyway...

Most academic journals make articles freely available after an “embargo” period, of varying lengths. And many are amenable to the authors releasing pre-publication versions right away.

The scholarly publishing industry is addressing the issue, but it takes time to change large organizations.

But “abolishing” copyright is an act of Congress, and any realistic assessment is that it’s not going to happen.

Coises (profile) says:

What is the business of an academic journal?

It strikes me that something often discussed here on Techdirt is missing from Steven Shavell’s paper; specifically, the question of “What is the business of an academic journal?”

As has been pointed out repeatedly at Techdirt regarding movies, music and newspapers, fixation on a single, historical business model can blind industries to the real source of value they add. Mr. Shavell asserts, without any real justification that I can see, that academic journals could not survive without aquiring controlling copyright interest in the articles they publish unless they charge the academics who provide those articles. Isn’t this more a lack of imagination than an obvious fact?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

1) While I know this discussion is about science/technical papers, a removal of academic copyright across the board would have most arts and humanities teachers leaving their posts in droves.

History says otherwise.

2) Those who think intellectual property should be free usually aren’t people who make their livings with it.

I’ve noticed just the opposite.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

That’s helpful, thanks.

You’re welcome. But if you really found it helpful, then you ought to thank the author of the parent comment too, as it was of similar quality.

That’s also helpful.

You’re welcome, again.

You know, if you’re going to argue against someone, it would probably be helpful to provide reasons and evidence for your disagreements.

That’s really not necessary when they didn’t provide any reasons or evidence to begin with, now is it? Hypocrite much? Your comments smell like those of an industry tool. That stench is hard to miss.

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