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Copyright and Open Access: Back to the Roots

March 12, 2012 in Uncategorized

The way in which we publish today has been directly shaped by the history of printing, publishing and copyright law. To understand why publishing today is typically ‘closed by default’ – and to understand why it need not remain so any longer – we must first understand how the current publishing and copyright models originated.

When printing technology was developed in the late 15th century, it enabled books and texts to be reproduced on a large scale. This marked the start of a publishing business with ever increasing profits. It also marked the start of protection schemes where publishers developed strategies to protect their business and to increase profits.

The first strategy in the 18th century was the establishing of monopolies such as the English Company of Stationers and the French publishers in Paris. Authors gave exclusive ‘copying rights’ to a publisher in exchange for a fee. As there were relatively few to choose between, the publishers set the fee. Because of the dependency of authors on the monopolistic cartels of publishers, many financial disputes between publishers and authors ensued.  Rousseau for example published with the Dutch publisher Marc-Michel Rey and French publishers tried to have him publish with them. Rousseau switched for a short time but returned to Rey in the end.

The first copyright law was the Statute of Anne (1710),which was actually an attempt to protect the authors and to break the monopoly of, in this case,  the English publishing guild. The main aim of this act was also stated as “the encouragement of learning”, which could only be guaranteed by giving public access to the work. The spirit behind this idea was the belief during the Enlightenment period that knowledge belongs to everyone (doesn’t this sound remarkably familiar?), and not to any single individual.  Copyright was granted to the authors for only a limited time of 14 years (extendable by another 14 years) in order to give them time to profit from their work, but at the same time keeping the possibility to build upon or improve other works.  Hereafter the work was automatically considered to be in the public domain. The US Copyright Act of 1790 was closely modeled on the English act, with even the same opening words in the title – “An Act for the encouragement of learning” – and the same 14 + 14 years of protection.

Copyright thus gave authors and right holders a limited time to exert an exclusive right for commercial reproduction and communication to the public. But these rights were granted only in exchange for public access to the work. As a result, people could use the works for free, without consent, as long as there was no commercial use: they could share their copy with friends, read it as much as they wanted to, and even use it in the classroom.

In our time the nature of copyright has changed dramatically. The protection period has been extended to 70 years and more, and while copyright is still formally the right of the authors of a work, contemporary scientific publishers have found a way to obtain these rights: they simply require a copyright transfer agreement (CTA) from the authors. So why not publish in another journal which is not requiring the transfer of copyright? Here another factor comes into play: the general feeling among scientists that  publishing in a high profile scientific journal is necessary for funding, career, tenure and personal reputation. Because of these beliefs, high profile journals hold a similar power over scientific authors as the cartels in the 18th century once did. In fact it is from this position of power that publishers have been able to impose ever increasing prices, transfer of copyright, and extension of the copyright period to 70 or in some cases even 100 years.

That this is common practice in scientific publishing nowadays is because information has become a major financial asset and the major fuel for the world economy as a whole. In other words, information has become a vital property to protect. This is the main reason that, instead of recognizing knowledge as a Commons, as was the case during the age of Enlightenment, our society has become very obstructive to the sharing of scientific knowledge. This again is in marked contrast to the 21st century sharing that takes place in many other areas outside scholarship, initiated and facilitated by the development of social web companies like Facebook.

We scientists, however, do hold the key to change in our own hands. Instead of transferring our copyrights, and publishing in restricted access journals which demand the signing of a CTA , we could opt for transferring only non-exclusive publishing rights and mirror-publish our work wherever we want (for instance in open access repositories).  At the same time we could make a move to preferentially publish in OA journals. The argument that OA journals have a low stature is seriously flawed: we only have to realize that the reputation of high profile journals has only been kept upright so far because we have continued publishing our most important work there. Another very important reason for giving our rights away to publishers all this time is that we couldn’t publish and distribute our work ourselves efficiently before the invention of the world wide web . But the times have changed: now we can and I would say we should.  There is no reason why communities of scientists could not start publishing themselves.

Publishing in Open Access journals and self-publishing would allow us to go back to the basic principle that knowledge belongs to everyone. It would also let us rediscover a deep truth about Knowledge: that it can and will only reach its full potential when shared with everyone. This truth has been known to people since ancient times, but somehow it got lost when in our society knowledge was more and more seen as an economic asset and a property to protect, instead of as a cultural heritage belonging to everyone.

A return to the root ideas of science will benefit us all. By opening knowledge to everyone we will allow entirely new kinds of creative ideas to be generated. And although scientists will probably continue to lead the way in scientific discoveries, many ideas will spring from the participation of the general public in this process. In my view no one should stay at the sideline, every one of us has something useful to contribute: the only thing needed is @ccess [to knowledge] for everyone.

One response to “Copyright and Open Access: Back to the Roots”

  1. Tom Olijhoek says:

    NOTE The idea of not signing a CTA but instead grant the publisher a licence to publish is a recommended policy in the EU (
    By self-publishing I didn’t mean only publishing manuscripts into repositories, but the depositing of scientific works in the framework of a scientist community network. This is already done in practice by, Mendeley and a number of other global scientist networks.
    @ccess should also one day offer these possibilities for various scientific areas through @ccess communities.

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