Books,  Open content,  Weblogs

The weirdness of copyright

I’ve written a chapter for a book with James Dalziel and we are asked to sign a copyright form. Now, I usually just sign these, but I’ve been getting fussy about this stuff recently. So, I actually read this one, and when you analyse it, there are a number of really draconian measures in there. If you look at it rationally you think ‘no-one would invent a system like this now’. To be fair, they have said we can publish the chapter online if we ask permission, and this copyright form is fairly standard. But I think it’s an interesting exercise to go through it.

“Author(s) agrees to, and
does hereby assign all rights, title and interest, including copyrights, in and
to the manuscript to Publisher. The author retains the rights to any intellectual property
developed by the author and included in the manuscript including, without
limitation, any models, theories, or conclusions formulated by the author.
While the author may use any and all thoughts and research results developed or
accumulated while working on a manuscript, and may rewrite, update, and
re-title them for use in other publications, the author CANNOT use the verbatim
text of the manuscript or any part thereof that has been copyrighted”

I love the ‘author may use any thoughts’ line – it’s nice of them to let the author keep their thoughts I guess. But the key assumption we don’t question here is that they own the chapter – you have written, edited, formatted it, but have surrendered all rights to it. This is particularly odd when you consider the next point:

“Author(s) understand that no royalties or
remuneration will be paid by the Publisher to the author for the above named
submitted manuscript. Further, Author(s)
acknowledge the manuscript is being provided on a volunteer basis for the
professional recognition obtained by the publication.”

So, we do all the work, you keep all the money. Woohoo! Good job we like that professional recognition so much.

“The Author(s) will indemnify and defend Publisher
against any claim, demand or recovery against Publisher by reason of any
violation of any proprietary right or copyright, or because of any libelous or
scandalous matter contained in the Manuscript.”

And we have to carry all the risk as well.

“The Author(s) agrees that until the publication of the
manuscript Author(s) will not agree to publish, or furnish to any other
publisher, any work on the same subject that will infringe upon or adversely
affect the sale of the manuscript. Furthermore, author(s) cannot post the
contents of the article on any personal website or other sites, or distribute the
work to others in either electronic or print forms.”

I mean, seriously, come on. They have said that actually we can, as long as we seek permission. What I would like to know is if I put something online and it increases the sales of the book, do I get a cut then?

“Contributing authors will not receive complimentary
copies of the handbook; however, publisher will provide contributors to the handbook
with a copy of their published manuscript along with a copy of the cover page
of the publication. In addition, Publisher will provide each contributor to the
handbook a 40% discount offer if they decide to purchase the handbook.”

I can buy a copy of my own work at reduced cost!

“The Publisher may permit others to publish, broadcast,
make recordings or mechanical renditions, publish book club and micro-film
editions, make translations, and other electronic versions, show by motion
pictures or television, syndicate, quote, and otherwise utilize this work, and
material based on this work.”

Now, granted that Edtechie The Movie isn’t coming to a cinema near you any time soon, but the control still resides with the publisher. As the author I would have no say in how it is later used. When you publish online you accept this to a degree, but at least a CC licence allows me to specify that it is share-alike, or non-commercial, so gives me some element of control.

Now compare this with, say, keeping a blog:

  • I can still get the professional recognition,
  • I still do the work, but I can style it and edit it the way I want
  • If there were any money to be made, I would make it
  • It potentially reaches a wider audience
  • No-one will sue me if I put it in two places or reuse it
  • It is free to the reader
  • I own it

Hmm, wonder which one academia should choose…


  • AJ Cann

    Number 3 is a pretty big if.
    I turned down doing a new edition of one of my books this morning. It has paid well, but frankly, I just can’t face it this time round. If I were not writing so much online, I would have taken the deal, and been paid.

  • Martin

    True, but as a contributing author I don’t get anything anyway.
    But even then, what do you get – 8% of sales maybe? I get between 7 and 10% on my books. That’s not much for doing most of the work.

  • AJ Cann

    You need to get a better agent 😉
    It’s true that it’s not much, but when I was younger and my mortgage was painful, it made a big difference. I couldn’t have afforded to have been a full time blogger back then…

  • Anoush Margaryan

    Academia and academics will choose what they are rewarded and promoted on – and it’s not blogs, not even book chapters, but peer-reviewed publications in impact rated journal.
    I think the whole publication and peer review system is flawed and must be changed. Copyright is only one component.
    When the system accommodates a broader range of types of venues for publication and dissemination of ideas, not many people will consider submitting to the draconian measures and the inherently unjust system that these “bastions of academic credibility” promote.

  • Doug Clow

    Quite. Derek Rowntree fought this fight years ago – and as a prolific author of fairly briskly-selling titles (as academic books go) he had a fair amount of leverage. ISTR he managed to wring out concessions like “Oh Ok, you can use some limited reprints of your own books in your own teaching and CPD activities, even if you’re getting paid to do them” out of it personally but failed entirely to dismantle the entire silly system (!).

  • Richard Treves

    Hi Martin,
    An interesting post. I saw a cracking talk given at Southampton by someone from ePrints. He explained the history of academic freedom and how we let it go….
    Apparently journals used to be run by professional bodies and Unis in a fairly amateur way. Robert Maxwell smelled an opportunity after WW2 and invented Pergamon press (I think ?) hovering up the profits of Academics writing, academics reviewing and academics editing journals that he just had to print. They do even less for their money now its online of course and ePrints aims to reclaim the rights for the authors.
    Rather like OS software, academics need to get back what is ours as, as I’m sure you’re aware, papers on the web are more widley read and cited than those behind paywalls. And its not just us of course, society as a whole benefits if academic articles are freely available on the web.
    I agree with your comparison to a blog – a point you don’t make but is crucial for me in the arena of geo-browsers is that you just can’t accept a 6 month delay to your work being released – the world has changed completely in that period.

  • Martin

    Hi Richard,
    long time no hear! Yes, I do recall that history of Maxwell – thanks for bringing that in, it illustrates that actually the current state of play is not the only one.
    And you are absolutely right – delay is crucial. As I mentioned in a post a while ago, I had a paper that took 3 years to be published in a reputable journal. Three years in educational technology is a lifetime, so how does that make it reputable?

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