A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned on this blog a situation I was in: that I was unwilling to sign a contract for an essay I had written in contribution an anthology of critical essays from Oxford University Press (OUP), because the contract stipulated that the essay would be regarded as “work for hire.” This would mean that I would have absolutely no rights as the author of the work. Whereas most academic press contracts ask you to sign away certain of your rights, by transferring copyright from yourself to the press, this contract from OUP meant that I would have no rights at all — if I signed, I would be agreeing that (as Gordon Hull put it — see the comments to the previous blog entry) “copyright was never [mine] in the first place — it belonged to OUP from the start.” It is obvious that, were this to become the norm in academic publishing, then intellectual enquiry and academic freedom, as we now know them, would cease to exist. Writers would become “knowledge workers” whose output belonged to the press that published them (or to the university at which they worked, in another variant of the scenario) in the same way that code written on the job at Microsoft, Apple, or Google belongs to those companies, and not to the writers themselves.
Well, the academics who are putting together the volume to which I was supposed to be contributing graciously asked OUP on my behalf about the work for hire provision. The response they got back was that the Press wouldn’t budge on work for hire. I don’t think I have permission to actually reproduce the words of the editor from OUP, so I will paraphrase. What he basically said was that traditional publication agreements are insufficient because they only give presses “limited sets of rights.” In other words, he was openly confessing that OUP seeks complete and unlimited control over the material that they publish.
Unlimited and complete control over one's work: the very idea is enough to strike terror into any fiction writer's heart. About ten years ago, I contributed to an anthology composed of work by both fiction writers and academics. The publisher in that case did not demand "complete and unlimited control" over our work, but they did ask for what I thought were unusual and unwarranted control. The other fiction writers felt the same, but the academics were surprised--they hadn't much thought about this practice, and as academics feel so without leverage (given that publications on their CVs are prerequisites for professional survival). In the end, most of us amended the contract to preserve a reasonable degree of control over our contributions in the future. A couple of years ago, I had a less reasonable experience. The "contract" in that case was only one-way-- viz., the author agreeing to sign over all rights forever to the work. When I objected, the publisher comprised by allowing me some rights after five years. That experience made me realize that writing for academic publication may end up being too costly (and a virtual waste of my time). Of course the corporations that own these academic presses don't care about that: academic workers are cheap labor, in their minds--and apparently interchangeable. Product is product, right? One block of 5000 words can't be much different from another block, apart from those that have a brand name everyone knows...
I know that some people think the copyright battles currently underway are about preserving authors' rights: but actually, these battles are about allowing corporations wishing to own and control all cultural products in perpetuity. Sometimes these battles might indirectly benefit authors, but such benefits are never the point.