Thu May 19, 2011

Academic Journals and Copyright Control

Via Duke Library’s Kevin Smith, an update on what academic publishers want from the Georiga State Copyright Case that’s now coming to trial:

… amongst that deluge of paper is a truly frightening document, the proposed injunction that the plaintiffs are requesting if they win the case. I have always known that there was a lot a stake for higher education in this case, but the injunction the publishers want would be a nightmare scenario beyond even my most pessimistic imaginings. First, if this injunction were adopted as proposed, it would enjoin everyone at Georgia State, including students, who would seem to largely lose their fair use rights by virtue of enrolling at GSU. It would apply to e-reserves, faculty web pages and any learning management systems in use or adopted in the future. It would make GSU responsible for every conceivable act of copying that took place on their campus … Not only would GSU have to micromanage each faculty member’s choices about how to teach every class, they would also have to give the plaintiff publishers access to all of the computer systems on campus so that they too could examine each professor’s decisions. I can only imagine the angry reaction of faculty members if this requirement were actually imposed on our campuses; they might finally rebel against the exploitation they suffer from these “academic” publishers. … Permission fees are the real purpose here, of course. The goal is to drive more and more money to the Copyright Clearance Center, which is the only source of permission mentioned by name in the draft injunction. … I believe that compliance with this order, were the publishers to win their case and the Judge to adopt the proposed injunction, would be literally impossible. For one thing, the record keeping, monitoring and reporting requirements would cost more than any institution can afford, even if they were technically possible …Yet you can be sure that if those things happen, all of our campuses would be pressured to adopt the “Georgia State model” in order to avoid litigation. This proposed order, in short, represents a nightmare, a true dystopia, for higher education. We can only hope, I think, that Judge Evans is clear-sighted enough, and respectful enough of what Congress intended when it passed the 1976 Copyright Act, not to adopt this Orwellian proposal, even if she finds in favor of the plaintiffs. No judge likes to issue an order that cannot be obeyed, and this one would be so far outside the stated policies of the United States in its copyright law that an appellate court could, and likely would, overturn it purely on those grounds.

As Kevin says, the plaintiffs are unlikely to be granted such a far-reaching injunction. But the request makes it clear—if further clarification were required—how they see their interests, and how far removed those interests are from the academics who, in addition to teaching courses that incorporate material from scholarly journals, also edit, referee, subscribe to, subsidize, and provide all the content of these journals almost entirely for free. Scholarly publishing is a canonical case of Information Feudalism. If there is anywhere one would want to see the scythe of disintermediation cut through the fields, it’s here.