Three hundred years of piracy: why academic books should be free

I think academic books should be free.

It’s not a radically new proposal, but I’d like to clarify what I mean by “free”. First, there’s the financial sense: books should be free in that there should be no cost to either the author or the reader. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, books should be free in terms of what the reader can do with them: copying, sharing, creating derivative works, and more.

I’m not going to go down the murky road of what exactly a modern academic book actually is. I’m just going to take it for granted that there is such a thing, and that it will continue to have a niche in the scholarly ecosystem of the future, even if it doesn’t have the pre-eminent role it has at present in some disciplines, or even the same form and structure. (For instance, I’d be pretty keen to see an academic monograph written in Choose Your Own Adventure style.)

Another thing I’ll be assuming is that technology does change things, even if we’re rather it didn’t. If you’re reluctant to accept that, I’d like to point you to what happened with yellow pages. Or take a look at the University of Manchester’s premier catering space, Christie’s Bistro. Formerly a science library, this imposing chamber retains its bookshelves, which are all packed full of books that have no conceivable use to man or beast: multi-volume indexes of mid-20th-century scientific periodicals, for instance. In this day and age, print is still very much alive, but at the same time the effects of technological change aren’t hard to spot.

With those assumptions in place, then, let’s move on to thinking about the academic book of the future. To do that I’m going to start with the academic book of the past, so let’s rewind time by three centuries. In 1710, the world’s first copyright law, the UK’s Statute of Anne, was passed. This law was a direct consequence of the introduction and spread of the printing press, and the businesses that had sprung up around it. Publishers such as the rapacious Andrew Millar had taken to seizing on texts that, even now, could hardly be argued to be anything other than public-domain: for instance, Livy’s History of Rome. (Titus Livius died in AD 17.) What’s more, they then claimed an exclusive right to publish such texts – a right that extended into perpetuity. This perpetual version of copyright was based on the philosopher John Locke’s theory of property as a natural right. Locke himself was fiercely opposed to this interpretation of his work, but that didn’t dissuade the publishers, who saw the opportunity to make a quick buck (as well as a slow one).

Fortunately, the idea of perpetual copyright was defeated in the courts in 1774, in the landmark Donaldson v. Becket case. It’s reared its ugly head since, of course, for instance when the US was preparing its 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act: it was mentioned that the musician Sonny Bono believed that copyright should last forever (see also this execrable New York Times op-ed). What’s interesting is that this proposal was challenged at the time, by Edinburgh-based publisher Alexander Donaldson – and, for his efforts to make knowledge more widely available, Donaldson was labelled a “pirate”. The term has survived, and is now used – for instance – to describe those scientists who try to access paywalled research articles using the hashtag #ICanHazPDF, and those scientists who help them. What these people have in common with the cannon-firing, hook-toting, parrot-bearing sailors of the seven seas is not particularly clear, but it’s clearly high time that the term was reclaimed.

If you’re interested in the 18th century and its copyright trials and tribulations, I’d encourage you to take a look at Yamada Shōji’s excellent 2012 book “Pirate” Publishing: the Battle over Perpetual Copyright in eighteenth-century Britain, which, appropriately, is available online under a CC-BY-NC-ND license. And lest you think that this is a Whiggish interpretation of history, let me point out that contemporaries saw things in exactly the same way. The political economist Adam Smith, in his seminal work The Wealth of Nations, pointed out that, before the invention of printing, the goal of an academic writer was simply “communicating to other people the curious and useful knowledge which he had acquired himself“. Printing changed things.

Let’s come back to the present. In the present, academic authors make almost nothing from their work: royalties from monographs are a pittance. Meanwhile, it’s an economic truism that each electronic copy made of a work – at a cost of essentially nothing – increases total societal wealth. (This is one of the reasons that intellectual property is not real property.) What academic authors want is readership and recognition: they aren’t after the money, and don’t, for the most part, care about sales. The bizarre part is that they’re punished for trying to increase wealth and readership by the very organizations that supposedly exist to help them increase wealth and readership. Elsevier, for instance, filed a complaint earlier this year against the knowledge sharing site Sci-Hub.org, demanding compensation. It beggars belief that they have the audacity to do this, especially given their insane 37% profit margin in 2014.

So we can see that publishers, when profit-motivated, have interests that run counter to those of academics themselves. And, when we look at the actions of eighteenth-century publishers such as Millar, we can see that this is nothing new. Where does this leave us for the future? Here’s a brief sketch:

  • Publishers should be mission-oriented, and that mission should be the transmission of knowledge.
  • Funding should come neither from authors nor from readers. There are a great many business models compatible with this.
  • Copyright should remain with the author: it’s the only way of preventing exploitation. In practice, this means a CC-BY license, or something like it. Certain humanities academics claim that CC-BY licenses allow plagiarism. This is nonsense.

How far are we down this road? Not far enough; but if you’re a linguist, take a look at Language Science Press, if you haven’t already.

In conclusion, then, for-profit publishers should be afraid. If they can’t do their job, then academics will. Libraries will. Mission-oriented publishers will. Pirates will.

It’s sometimes said that “information wants to be free”. This is false: information doesn’t have agency. But if we want information to be free, and take steps in that direction… well, it’s a start.


Note: this post is a written-up version of a talk I gave on 11th Nov 2015 at the John Rylands Library, as part of a debate on “Opening the Book: the Future of the Academic Monograph”. Thanks to the audience, organizers and other panel members for their feedback.

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