I have found myself recently wondering about the copyright terms for academic publications. Whenever an article of mine has been accepted for publication either in a journal, or in a book of essays by various authors, I have to sign a contract, or perhaps just an agreement on the assignment of copyright (I am a bit hazy on the legal distinctions here, which is one of the problems). I used to just sign these things without really paying attention to what they said — since “publish or perish” was the overriding concern. But recently, I have started to pay attention to such things. Partly because, having tenure, I don’t really need to worry about the “perish” possibility. And partly because, thanks to the Net, I can get my work out there where people can read it anyway — it is no longer the case that, without official publication, what I wrote would just languish on my hard drive.
So I have started reading the copyright agreements that I am expected to sign — and I have been appalled by the terms. For instance: I received such a form just this week, from a publisher that I will only call “C”. The text of the agreement stated (among other things):
The Contributor hereby grants the Publishers during the legal term of the copyright the exclusive right and license to produce, publish, and perform his/her contribution to the Work or any abridgement or portion of it in all editions, languages, formats including film, microphotography, photocopying, electronic medium and any other form of transmission or reproduction throughout the world.
“Exclusive rights”: this means that I cannot publish or distribute the article in any other form than those the publisher approves. This includes the “electronic medium,” i.e. I cannot publish the article on my website without their explicit permission. I find this unacceptable. They are asking me to give up all control over my own work.
Now, the article that I gave publisher “C” is actually a part of my own book in progress, which I am currently trying to finish, and which hopefully will itself be published no more than six months after publisher “C”s anthology. However, the agreement “C” wants me to sign explicitly states:
The Contributor is quite free to reprint their contribution in a collection of their own work, provided that due acknowledgement is made to its first appearance and provided that its publication does not take place within a period of five years of its first publication.
In other words, I cannot publish my own book until five years after the anthology appears — which pretty much delays the publication of my own book from 2009 to 2013 or so.
Needless to say, I am refusing to sign the contract with publisher “C” unless the change the terms, and explicitly give me permission to a)make the article available on my own website, and b)publish the book of which the article is a fragment as soon as I can, rather than having to wait five years.
I am waiting to hear back from publisher “C”. If they don’t agree to my requests, I will simply remove my article from the collection of essays.
It’s been a busy week. I also received, this week, a similar contract or agreement from publisher “P”, regarding an article that is supposed to appear next year in one of their journals. This article, at least is stand-alone; it is not part of any of my books in progress. So, if I were to withdraw my text from them, it wouldn’t be “officially” published anywhere else. The issue about republication in a book I am currently writing doesn’t come up in this case. But still, I was taken aback by the language their agreement used:
You assign to us with full title guarantee all rights of copyright and related rights in your Article. So that there is no doubt, this assignment includes the assignment of the right to publish the Article in all forms, including electronic and digital forms, for the full legal term of the copyright and any extension or renewals. Electronic form shall include, but not be limited to, microfiche, CD-ROM and in a form accessible via on-line electronic networks. You shall retain the right to use the substance of the above work in future works, including lectures, press releases and reviews, provided that you acknowledge its prior publication in the journal.
The over-the-top language about inclduing electronic forms worries me a bit. Nonetheless, in this case, I signed. The reason was, that the language doesn’t use the word “exclusive,” as the contract from publisher “C” did. I am assuming, therefore, that what I am assigning to publisher “P” is non-exclusive rights to publish the article in all forms, etc. “Non-exclusive” means that I am not giving the rights only or exclusively to them. Which means that I can retain for myself the right to publish the article on my own website, for instance.
Of course, I am not a lawyer, so I may be mistaken in my interpretation of this contract. Maybe I oughtn’t to have signed the agreement from publisher “P” either. However, just to be sure of retaining my rights, I am making the article available here, several months prior to journal publication. Hopefully some people will find it of interest. It is basically a statement of why I so strongly dislike my 1993 book The Cinematic Body, even though it appears to be the work upon which my academic reputation, such as it is, is largely based. At this point, I would like to forget about The Cinematic Body altogether. Really, folks, I have written a lot of articles and books since then, nearly all of which I think are much better…
Anyway, my dealing with these copyright agreements has brought home to me how massively fucked up the whole publication and copyright system is in academic writing. (Of course, the same goes for all other sorts of writing, and of production of works in other media as well — what is of interest here is just the particular way in which it all works out in academic writing). And it demonstrates, yet again, that copyright does not generally benefit the author/producer; it has mostly to do with corporate profits and corporate arrangements. (Though the profits for academic writing are so meager that the whole set-up seems especially pathetic here. I don’t make my living from royalties on publications anyway; but rather, from the academic prestige that I am able to acquire on the basis of the non-financial prestige of those publications). In particular, it’s pathetic that acdemics in the “humanities” don’t have the sort of network for distributing their research online in the way that scientists and certain groups of social scientists do. Putting up pdfs on my own website will have to suffice for now.