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Copyright:Academia :: Oil:Water

2009 July 28
by Richard N. Landers
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Through this post at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, I learned Dr. Steven Shavell, director of the John M. Olin Center for Law, Economics, and Business has written a piece on whether copyright should be abolished for academic works and how realistically that might happen (available as a PDF).  It’s an interesting read, also laying out the motivations for academic publishing in such a way that it’s very depressing but also illuminating to a lay audience (which is, I imagine, his purpose).

I say depressing because it reminds me just how little external motivation there is to be an academic – in other words, if you’re looking for cash, this isn’t the way to do it.  Take this snippet from a footnote on page 29 on royalties from books:

…my understanding is that under a typical arrangement, an academic author would
receive a royalty rate of 15% of revenue. If a book sold, say, 1,000 copies at a price of $60, the royalties
received would be $9,000. If the book were 300 pages in length and the author spent an average of 3 hours
a page, the implied hourly rate of pay received by the author would be $10.

As a person who has always wanted to write an academic text, knowing that such an effort would only be valued at a slightly higher rate than the hourly pay of a fry cook is a little troubling.  Although I suppose it means I’m cut out for this work, since it doesn’t phase me in the least.

As for the abolishing of copyright, Dr. Shavell lays out an interesting case.  In the current system, costs are absorbed by the publisher.  Academics write articles and essentially give away all of their rights to those articles in order for them to be published in academic journals, in exchange for prestige and career advancement.  The publishers make their money on advertising and subscription sales, hopefully earning more than the associated printing and distribution costs.  In a copyright-free system, publishers would lose much of their revenue – for example, readers have no motivation to pay for a journal article when it is freely available elsewhere.  With decreased revenue, costs must be passed to someone else – either the academics themselves, or more likely, the academic institutions they work for.  Although the alternative, of course, is online self-publishing by universities, and removing the for-profit publishers from the equation entirely (although this passes the costs, although smaller, into still-shrinking higher education budgets).

The benefit to getting rid of copyright (while assuming for-profit publishers cannot be avoided) is increased freedom of information for academic papers.  Lay people and scientists alike have easier, free access to scholarly work, encouraging both increased public involvement and greater readership.  Greater readership leads to increased interest, which leads to increased research, which leads to increased readership… you get the idea.  We also want to avoid situations where academics don’t even have the freedom to print material from research they themselves conducted and published in the past.

And as a hilarious sidenote, I just wanted to point out footnote 14 on p.12: “I do not consider negative prices – the possibility that authors would pay individuals to read their works.”  Perhaps he should!

By the way, if you haven’t taken the GRE recently, yes, the title of this post is an analogy, and yes, it took a few moments to figure out whether academia would be oil or water.  But the principle remains the same!

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