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Responsibly Managing Your Own Copyrights
Although every one of us is a copyright holder, (recall copyright protection arises automatically as soon as an original work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression), the majority of us do not create copyrighted works that are publishable or convey information in demand. In the microcosm of a research university setting, however, there are a great many scholars and researchers, all of whom generate significant copyrighted materials. In particular, one of the primary outlets for communicating research results, findings, theories, ideas, and information is the scholarly journal article and/or monograph.
Why is it anyone else's business what I do with the copyright to my scholarly journal articles?
These scholarly journal articles, even those conveying the most remarkable and groundbreaking research and analysis conceivable, when packaged in prestigious journal titles, have acquired a position of influence and effect on the scholarly communication process far in excess of the original role they were meant to play. The need for access to these journals has been leveraged to the point where its bloated consumption of the university library's acquisition budget has become grossly out of proportion to the information the journals provide. The cost of renting temporary access (for that is what is truly happening) to scholarly journals would return to reasonable levels if the consumers - the University libraries- had any meaningful ability to walk away from overpriced electronic journals and databases with absurd licensing restrictions. Why can't the libraries simply refuse to pay monstrous sums of money for access to content generated, not by the vendor, but by their own universities and their own faculty?
Suppose for a moment that you worked in a business that made office chairs, but that business gave the chairs away once their colleagues had certified the chairs as acceptable. Your office chair (in that business) wore out, so you sought out the vendor who was selling the chairs your business had given it. The price for the chair was enormous and would consume most of your budget for office furniture. Furthermore, the vendor required that you agree to certain conditions when using the chair, such as not letting anyone else sit in it; only sitting in the chair for a certain number of hours per day and so forth. What would you do? Let's assume also that you are not an idiot. You would find another place to buy an office chair that was reasonably priced and did not have silly restrictions. In other words, you walk away from the deal because you can.
You bring your new, reasonably-priced chair back to your office at your business. You are happy, you haven't used up most of your budget on one chair, and other office furniture items can now be purchased. You think all is well and good, but, in fact, upper management will now never promote you because you are sitting in the wrong chair. In fact, no one who works for you will ever be promoted. Perhaps, you only thought you could walk away from the deal when actually, you never had a choice to begin with.
Sometimes the absence of a choice is even more obvious - the overpriced vendor is the only one with office chairs and everyone back at work is counting on you to bring back chairs for them. Now what happened to your choice?
What does this have to do with copyright?
Everything. Whoever is the copyright holder to a work has an exclusive monopoly on the use of the work, with a few educational use holes in the monopoly. Those holes or exceptions to the monopoly do not extend to any sort of commercial competition, so, in effect, the copyright holder has the market monopoly for a work that was, in fact, given to them.
The scholarly communication process or cycle belongs to the scholars. It is the means by which they advance knowledge in their area, communicate with their colleagues, and attain the respect of their peers. Still, their primary mechanism of communication is through a peer-reviewed article. Scholars must spin their good ideas and research into gold by writing them down and having them accepted and published, preferably with a journal that has achieved a solid reputation. The gold they reap is the respect of their colleagues, but, more to the point, promotion and tenure.
In their pursuit of this gold, the faculty scholar unthinkingly gives the copyright to their work to the publisher via the publication agreement - for free! They take the fruits of their intellectual passion, their research, the most precious thing they have to sell - their intellectual property - and they hand it over; hand over their own right to copy, modify/use again, display, distribute, and perform the work unless they now get the permission of the publisher. They don't even retain a right to use their own work in their classes, their conferences, and their own further research and scholarship.
Now the publisher has the copyright monopoly and is in a position to charge university libraries pretty much whatever they want. Why? Because the very faculty who gave the publisher this control is now demanding electronic access, via the library, to the journals. If faculty cannot access the journals in their field, they fall behind in the conversation; and if their colleagues face similar roadblocks to access, who will read their journal article and give them the citation numbers they need?
Libraries did not create this problem and they cannot solve it. Only the copyright holders - the faculty authors - have any ability to break this cycle. That is what is meant by "Responsibly Managing Your Own Copyrights".
It means learning about your rights and responsibilities with respect to copyright. Understanding when you are transferring some or all of it and what the consequences of your actions are for you and your university. It means reading your publication agreements and negotiating for reasonable language. The following pages will give you some alternatives to the standard clauses found in publication agreements as well as some contract addendums that might be of use.
Finally, you are always welcome to contact Peggy Hoon, the Copyright Education Specialist, at Atkins Library, who can help you understand your agreements and options.
Libraries have long tried to raise awareness of the role scholar-authors play in the scholarly communication cycle: Here are a few of the dozens of sites:
• MIT Managing Your Copyright
highly recommended; links to UM's Author Addendum; Has an FAQ; links to short video on Author's Rights and much more
• Finally, the mother of them all, SPARC's Resources for Authors (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition with their widely distributed Author Rights brochure, text initially authored by me. (Peggy Hoon)