Friday, October 25, 2013

Some Notes on Copyright Law and Academic Publishing

Copyright laws and academic presses (who should be advocating for academic freedom) working together to mute scholars' voices. Tsk tsk tsk.

In his tweet about this Slate article, “Executors or Executioners?” (tagline: “Why can’t my biography of Shel Silverstein quote the works of Shel Silverstein? His censorious estate.”), Eric Jepson suggests, and rightly so, that copyright law needs to change. I read this in part as a statement of desire that power needs to be returned to these voices. But beyond the changes that need to be made to copyright laws, the process of academic publishing needs to change, too, as does our perception of knowledge-building via "thoughtful, good-faith argumentation and conscientious debate." Maybe that can, in part, happen if we begin constructing new metaphors to replace the one stated at the end of the article:

What we have here [in this biographer’s interactions with Silverstein’s estate]—if you’ll forgive the military metaphor—is but one front in a larger war against the rigorous analysis of fact. It’s part of a war against the presentation of evidence, a war against thoughtful, good-faith argumentation and conscientious debate. It’s another front in the larger war against truth. Which side are you on?

It seems to me that it would be useful to move beyond this violent, war-mongering imagery in which one party seeks to assert power over the other and to think about the motivations that may bring each party together in the first place and that may drive their behavior and the stances they take toward one another. On the one hand, copyright holders are likely afraid that others (scholars, for instance) will steal their intellectual property and in the process rob the estate of any potential gains said property might offer---like money, fame, respect, etc. On the other hand, those (like scholars) who want to use the material may fear being silenced, which can result in less-than-rigorous scholarship, something that further limits the scholars' ability to contribute to their knowledge-community and to be acknowledged for that contribution (in the form of academic advancement, for instance).

So the motivating factor in this contest over who should get to use someone’s “intellectual property” seems to be fear: fear that, if given the chance, the Other will make off with what’s rightly ours. (Fear, in fact, seems to be one of the motivating factors for all acts of violence and war.) But how do we move past that fear to begin establishing a more generous, more trusting, more trustworthy system for sharing and building knowledge, one in which the needs and desires of all parties are represented and advocated for? What metaphor---other than the military one asserted in the article---might be a more productive way to think about and to begin re-constructing the relationship between intellectual property holders and those who seek to use, to elaborate on, and/or to adapt that property?

As I ask the questions, the image of a creative commons comes to mind. But I’ll have to do more thinking on that metaphor and to share my thoughts on copyright and traditional academic publishing in another post, on another day. For now: any thoughts?


  1. .

    My primary thought is that we've gone too far in transferring ownership to the creator. I'm all for copyright and I don't think information should be absolutely free, but I do believe that a large part of copyright is getting works into the public domain after a reasonable time. Because information ultimately belongs to the public, it's just licensed to the creator.

    I suppose it goes without saying that I have a pretty liberal definition of fair use.

  2. I agree, on all points, including the liberal definition of fair use, which I draw upon fairly heavily in Field Notes (I did ask permission of the poets I quote extensively) and which has been influenced by and sparked my interest in remix culture.

    I'm all for supporting creators, but I also wish we could establish a culture (in the US especially) that was more open to sharing knowledge and creative work instead of hoarding them. In my thinking on the topic, I keep coming back to the idea that we ought to be both responsible and generous when doing knowledge work.

  3. .

    And, speaking of the US, I think the Constitution's requirement for copyright was designed decidedly NOT to lock words and phrases up forever.