Thursday, March 8, 2012

Complete and unlimited corporate control over texts

Most of the nonfiction I've had published has been with independent venues (like NYRSF and Strange Horizons), and most of it is not academic. But I do occasionally publish pieces in academic journals or anthologies.  I've noted With some grimness that conditions for publishing academic nonfiction in such places have been steadily worsening. I know of terrible experiences my academic friends have had, some of it truly shocking. Steven Shaviro now reports an intolerable situation with Oxford University press: they are demanding of their authors total, unlimited rights over the work they publish-- including permanent legal ownership of the copyright--reducing authors' work to "work-for-hire":
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.


Nancy Jane Moore said...

My first thought is that this is a last gasp efforts by an established press to protect their business model in the wake of absolute change. I don't think it will work, even for a big name like Oxford, because even academics have other options these days. But that doesn't mean they won't try and people won't be hurt in the process.

My second thought is to wonder whether those contracts also contain a clause in which the author indemnifies the press from any libel or error in the article that might lead to a lawsuit. Such indemnification is common when the writer retains core rights, but it has no place in a work for hire contract. Somehow, though, I wouldn't be surprised to see it. If anyone has a copy of such a contract, check and let me know.

Timmi Duchamp said...

In many cases the grab for rights has been due to the press having been acquired by a large corporate publisher, such as Elsevier. I can think of several journals that jacked the price of subscriptions so high that ordinary people couldn't afford them-- after they'd been acquired by corporate publishers. Mathematicians are now organizing a boycott against Elsevier: Here's a quote from an article at Nature. "Timothy Gowers is surprised and delighted that thousands of mathematics and other researchers have joined him in a public pledge not to have anything to do with Elsevier, the Amsterdam-based academic publishing giant. He is leading a boycott because of company practices that he says hinder the dissemination of research."