Signing over of Copyright

Lawrence Lessig has just sworn off publishing “in any academic journal that does not permit [him] the freedoms of at least a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.”

Accademic journals are funny economic actors, because it’s very clear they provide publication, archival and authentication services to an academic community, but not the content. The community that eventually reads the journal also provides the real value in a journal: its authors, reviewers and editors, usually for free or a pittance. While there’s no denying that publication and archival services cost money and should be compensated, high subscription prices or other access restrictions are a disservice to the entire author-reader community. As the main provider of value in the process this community has considerable power. It’s more pronounced in accademia, but I see a lot of similarity to the growing pains the record industry is feeling, with consumers and artists both realizing the value added by the middleman isn’t as valuable as they thought. I suspect these fights in academia contain some good lessons for how the powershifts will other content areas might play out — assuming financial interests in the old way things were done don’t manage to put the djinni back in the bottle.

Side note: the two academic societies in my field, IEEE and ACM, both require that an author sign over his or her copyright to them before publication. Both policies have become more open in the past decade, in particular by granting permission for articles to be published on the author’s own website, but Lessig’s oath would still rule out either society’s journals because they don’t grant permission to others. ACM lays out its rationale for its copyright program, and concludes: ACM firmly believes that it achieves a balance among divergent goals; that its use of copyright within its publishing program in fact serves the public good by enabling the creation and widespread dissemination of quality works in various formats and media. This may be the case right now, but with media technology changing so quickly I suspect (and hope) author-reader pressure will continue to push these policies towards more openness.