Work for Hire update

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. The justification he gave for this was that old neoliberal standby, “flexibility” — OUP is seeking to do all sorts of digital distribution, and if rights are limited then they may not be able to control new forms of distribution that arise due to technological changes. Of course, the mendaciousness of this claim can be seen by the fact that, as was confirmed to me by one of the people involved in putting together the volume, the “work-for-hire” provision was in place long before the Press even got the idea of supplementing physical publication of the volume with a (no doubt password-protected and expensive to acces) website.

Equally alarmingly, the editor said in his email that this “work for hire” provision was now standard practice for the press, at least as regards their very ambitious series of “Handbook” volumes. In other words, OUP is being quite systematic in usurping authors’ rights. If we don’t stop this now, it will become more and more prevalent throughout academic publishing. The volume to which I was supposed to contribute is quite an excellent one, with lots of great articles  (I don’t want to mention its name here so as not to disparage the work of the three academics who put it together).

But I, for one, am determined never to write for Oxford University Press again, unless they eliminate this policy; and I would urge others to refuse to write for them as well. I know that people in less privileged positions than mine are pretty much compelled to sign odious agreements of this sort, because they need the publications for academic credit and recognition, and often specifically for tenure or promotion. So I don’t condemn anyone who does enter into so unfavorable an agreement — rather, I would hope that action by those of us who can afford to take our work elsewhere, or simply make it available for free, will lead to the elimination of such exploitative contracts altogether. I would advise all academic writers to look carefully at their contracts, before they commit themselves.

I will also not be buying any OUP books in the future — which is something of a sacrifice, as they are an important press. [I recently purchased from OUP, at an exorbitant price, the important new book by Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum, Getting Causes From Powers — which I hope to write about on this blog or in some other forum soon. Should a future situation of this sort arise, I will just have to bite the bullet and wait until I can get a copy through interlibrary loan. I don’t really expect that libraries will stop buying OUP books, and I think the dissemination of scholarship is important, so I cannot really say that I will refuse to read anything, no matter how important, just because it is published by OUP. But I do think buying less from them might have an impact on their profit line, and thus pressure them to cease their unfair practices].

As for my article itself — which is 8500 words long, which contains substantial arguments not found in anything else that I have written, and which cost me two months of my life — I will try to find another venue for it to appear in print. I will eventually make it available for free download from my own website as well (as I have done with most of my writings), but it still seems unfortunately to be the case that academic writings are not taken seriously if they do not have some “official” form of publication.

[This posting has now been translated into Haitian Creole by John Obri — for which much thanks.]

Carl Freedman, The Age of Nixon

I am happy to report that Carl Freedman’s superb new book, The Age of Nixon: A Study in Cultural Power, is now in print from Zer0 Books and available for purchase. I wrote a blurb for this book, which appears on the inside front cover, and which I will reproduce here:

Richard Nixon was real, for all that he seems like a fictional character concocted in the course of some strange literary collaboration between Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Theodore Dreiser, and J. G. Ballard. And Nixon continues to fascinate us, and to haunt our dreams, even these many years after his death. Carl Freedman’s compelling book takes the full measure of Nixon the man, Nixon the media image, Nixon the myth, and even Nixon the ideal type, the quintessential expression, and the most capacious representative of the political and economic system under which we continue to live today.

So, admittedly, I am not a neutral observer with regards to this book. I have known Carl Freedman for something like thirty-six years (can it really be that long? — amazing), and during all that time we have shared a fascination (an obsession?) with Nixon and all things Nixonian.

I can also say that I grew up, as it were, with Nixon. My parents taught me Nixon-hatred from the cradle. Indeed, my parents actually knew (and I once met) Jerry Voorhis, a one-time Democratic Congressman from southern California who had the dubious honor of being the very first victim of a vicious Nixon smear campaign. 

Obviously, American politics today is far different from what it was in Nixon’s time: today, Nixon’s policies would place him far to the left of any of the current batch of Republican Presidential contenders, and in many respects to the left of Obama as well. But Nixon was both the architect (via his “Southern strategy”) of the current, horrifically reactionary political alignment, and the still-unsurpassed master (as well as, in some respects, the inventor) of the sort of over-the-top political sleaze that we take for granted today without so much as a second glance.

But whereas, for me, Nixon-analysis has all been just talk, Carl has actually sat down and written the book. Sifting patiently through vast quantities of Nixoniana, he has detailed “Nixon as the quintessential petty-bourgeois, as a man of ressentiment, as an example of the anal-erotic character, as anti-Semite, as racist.” But Carl also writes, to the disquiet of many who might agree with the preceding designations, of “Nixon as liberal”: which means that, in his very slipperiness and obsessive insistence upon the virtues of the supposed “even playing field”, Nixon signifies or embodies (I am not sure which word is better) an “essential emptiness…at the heart of liberalism,” an opportunism, together with an insistence on proceduralism rather than substantial values, which means that “liberalism, in actual psychological practice, can with fearful ease become the opposite of itself.” (Though I am quoting the book here, my scrambled summary comes off a bit too convoluted; it fails to convey the clarity and eloquence that the book has, if it is read straight through). 

All in all, Carl’s book drives us to the conclusion that everything horrific that Nixon did (or was) is “deeply rooted in American history and tradition.” Carl demonstrates that Nixon was (and still is) truly the “obscene supplement” (to use a Zizek phrase that Carl himself does not employ) of American optimism, idealism, and exceptionalism. I am tempted to put it this way. In the 19th century, writers like Poe and Melville revealed a disturbing underside to the great and beautiful idealisms of Emerson and Thoreau. These are the two sides of American culture, which actually run continuously with one another, and transform into one another, like the seeming two sides (which are really one) of a Moebius strip. Nixon was the 20th century living embodiment of this situation — which is why his twisted legacy continues to haunt us today. And this despite the fact that we live under a neoliberal economic regime far harsher than anything Nixon supported or imposed (remember that Nixon’s Keynesianism caused him to be denounced by Milton Friedman himself as a socialist).

Also — since I have just described Nixon in aesthetic terms, in relation to Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, and Melville — it is important to note that The Age of Nixon wonderfully contains an Epilogue discussing “Nixon in Art.” Carl is the first (to my knowledge) to point up the significance of the fact that Nixon figures prominently as a character in the works of a whole generation of American artists: novelists such as Robert Coover and Philip Roth, painters such as Philip Guston, filmmakers such as Oliver Stone and Robert Altman, and even opera composers like John Adams. 

I doubt that Nixon can be as much an object of fascination to younger generations today as he always was to aging Boomers like myself, who actually grew up with him. But The Age of Nixon captures and explains this fascination, and also demonstrates how “the meaning of Richard Nixon” (by parallel with Badiou’s The Meaning of Sarkozy and Richard Seymour‘s The Meaning of David Cameron) remains, unfortunately, all too relevant for us today in the 21st century.

Work for Hire?

Here we go again. I was asked to sign a contract for an essay I have written, which is scheduled to appear in an edited collection. Let’s leave aside the fact that I wrote the essay — it was solicited for this collection — in summer 2010, and yet it will not appear in print until 2013. I think that the glacial pace of academic publishing is a real problem. But that is not what is bothering me at the moment. The contract that I was asked to sign, so that my essay could appear in an edited volume published by Oxford University Press, contained the following clause:

WORK-FOR-HIRE. The Contributor acknowledges that the Publisher has commissioned the Contribution as a work-for-hire, that the Publisher will be deemed the author of the Contributior as employer-for-hire, and that the copyright in the Contribution will belong to the Publisher during the initial and any renewal or extended period(s) of copyright. To the extent, for any reason, that the Contribution or any portion thereof does not qualify or otherwise fails to be a work-for-hire, theContributor hereby assigns to the Publisher whatever right, title and interest the Contributor would otherwise have in the Contribution throughout the world.

I found this entirely unbelievable, and unacceptable. Since when has original academic writing been classified as “work-for-hire”? It is possible, I suppose, that things like writing encyclopedia essays might be so categorized; but I have never, in my 30 years in academa, encountered a case in which primary scholarship or criticism was so classified. Is this something widespread, but which I simply haven’t heard about? I’d welcome information on this score from people who know more about the academic publishing situation than I do. But it seems to me, at first glance, that the Press is upping the ante in terms of trying to monopolize “intellectual property,” by setting up an arrangement that both cuts off the public from access and denies any rights to the henceforth-proletarianized “knowledge worker” or producer. I am unwilling to countenance such an abridgement of my ability to make the words that I have written more freely available.
In any case, I wrote back to the Press as follows:

I am unwilling to sign the Contributor’s Agreement for my submission to the Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics as it is currently worded. In particular, I find section 2, defining my contribution as work-for-hire, completely objectionable. I entirely reject the notion that original academic work of this sort can be defined as work-for-hire. I think that this is demeaning to academic scholarship and disrespectful of intellectual labor.

Section 2 of the contract further stipulates that even if “the Contribution or any portion thereof does not qualify or otherwise fails to be a work-for-hire, the Contributor hereby assigns to the Publisher whatever right, title and interest the Contributor would otherwise have in the Contribution throughout the world.” I find this objectionable as well. Even if my contribution to the volume is exempted from being considered work-for-hire, I am unwilling to sign over my own rights to the publisher in this unlimited way. In particular, I insist upon retaining, among other rights, the right to make my contribution available for download on my own website and the right to include this contribution at some later date as part of a self-authored publication. 

I guess we will see what happens. I hope the Press backs down and offers more reasonable terms. If that doesn’t happen, I will simply have to withdraw my contribution from the edited volume. At some point, the essay will appear on my website for free download — whether because the publisher backs down and permits me to do this, or whether I give up on print publication.
Not getting the essay into print will mean that I won’t get the credit (or a line in my Vita) for the publication of an article that I am, in fact, rather proud of. This kind of credit matters in academia — salaries, among other things, are based on it. But as a full Professor with tenure I am in a rather privileged position: I can afford to lose the credit. The same is not the case for academics in more precarious positions — who might well be forced to sign away their rights in cases like this, because their jobs heavily depend upon their publication record, and one additional line on their Vita might make a major difference.