How Intellectual Protectionism promotes the progress of science and the useful arts

… by using the force of law to try to prevent Georgia State University students from accessing works of science and the useful arts unless they pay $50–$100 a pop to go through an academic publishing racket for obscure books with little resale value.

(Via Roderick Long @ Austro-Athenian Empire 2008-05-21.)

Please note that in the real world, outside the fever-dreams of academic publishers, sharing books and articles is an essential part of the life of a research university. Besides lending the book itself, every department has a copy machine, and every professor uses it, quite often, to run off paper copies of articles or chapters that they give away to their students. I have a file box with easily several thousand pages worth of xeroxed articles that I accumulated over the course of my college career. Or, if the professor doesn’t have the book herself, or doesn’t want to put the xeroxes on her tab with the department, every University library has self-serve xerox machines and a book-reserve system, where the professor can ensure that a copy of the book is always available for students to share with each other, and to xerox the relevant sections out of if they want to take it back to read on their own time. And all this is available even though professors could have forced each and every student to go down and pay for the $50-$100 anthology at the University bookstore.

Are these godless commies and lying, thieving mutualists that infest the Academy stealing from poor, innocent academic publishers by passing around xeroxes? No; all it is is that they aren’t insane, and they are aware that supporting some particular academic publisher’s business model is not their students’ responsibility.

Yet as soon as the University eliminates the paper medium, and facilitates exactly the same thing through an non-commercial, internal University course pack website — which does nothing at all more than what the xerox packets did, except that it delivers the information to pixels on a monitor instead of toner on a page — the publishers’ racket can run to court, throw up its arms, and start hollering Computers! Internet!, send their lawyers to try to shake down have a discussion with the University administration for new tribute to their monopoly business model, and then, failing that, utterly uncontroversial decades-old practices of sharing knowledge among colleagues and students suddenly become a legal case raising core issues like the future of the business model for academic publishers, while even the most absurd protectionist arguments are dutifully repeated by legal flacks on behalf of sustaining the racket. (Thus: It’s difficult to argue that this is a truly noncommercial use [even though Georgia State receives no money from students for the course packs]. Georgia State may be a nonprofit institution, but its students pay a lot of money for course materials, and would presumably pay money for the materials being provided to them by the university.)

A few years ago, when I was living in Ypsilanti, I sat in on a seminar over at the University of Michigan on Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein. There were a few textbooks to buy at the University bookstore (most of which I already owned), but a lot of the reading consisted of articles collected into a xeroxed course pack of anthologized articles. To get the course pack you went down to this copy shop in downtown Ann Arbor where the professor had left the master copy for the course pack. You paid Excel a fixed fee for the course pack; they took down the folder with the masters from the shelf, and then escorted you to a self-service copy machine where you had to mash the Copy button in order to make the copies yourself. Then you gave the copied sheets back to them at the counter, where they would take the copies you made back and bind them for you.

The reason that you, personally, had to push the copy button is because xeroxing articles out of books for the purposes of a class is legally speaking, completely non-controversial, but if you paid exactly the same amount of money, and the copy shop did exactly the same thing, except that an employee mashed that Copy button at your behest instead of making you do it yourself, the elimination of that minor inconvenience to the student would instantly convert the transaction from non-commercial to commercial copying, and thus expose the copy shop to a crippling lawsuit, as actually happened to Michigan Document Services in Ann Arbor back in 1992.

So, to be fair, I suppose you can credit the Intellectual Protectionists with fostering knowledge and innovation in one respect: by relentlessly attacking any sharing practice that they can get away with attacking, and exploiting any technological change in order to chip away and obliterate as much of traditional fair use protections as they can manage, have produced an absurd dynamic in which basically identical transactions are treated as radically different from one another, in courts of law, such that, in order to avoid lawsuits, academics, libraries, and copy shops have been forced to invent all kinds of creative new ways of splitting hairs and engaging in the most ridiculous sorts of casuistry just to keep on doing what teachers normally do, while covering themselves from the threat of a ruinous lawsuit.

Thanks, Intellectual Protectionism!

Oh, and by the way.

Incidentally, in case you are interested, the academic publishers currently suing Georgia State University to try and force their students back into the academic publishing racket are Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, and Sage Publications. The publisher that went after Michigan Document Services in 1992 was Princeton University Press. Wouldn’t it be interesting—a funny sort of coincidence, you know, one of those weird things that just happens in life when you were least expecting it—if bloggers committed to free minds and free culture just happened to start posting large quotes (of about 10-15 pages) from Cambridge, OUP, Princeton, and Sage books on their public, Google-searchable websites, under principles of fair use? All strictly for the non-commercial purpose of educating interested readers, of course. Wouldn’t it be interesting if it turned out that there was so much interest in talking about the topics covered in one of Cambridge’s, OUP’s, Princeton’s or Sage’s books that the whole book ended up getting posted, by a crazy series of coincidences, in protected bits and pieces on different websites, at the same time that those publishers are trying salvage their broken business model by mounting this massive screwjob on identifiable targets like innocent students at Georgia State?

The funny thing is, I was just thinking the other day that my readers here might enjoy learning some ordinary language philosophy, which might be illuminated by appropriate fair-use quotations from Stanley Cavell’s Must we mean what we say? (Cambridge University Press, 1976/2002), and some ancient moral philosophy, for which an absolutely essential source of appropriate fair-use quotations is Terence Irwin’s masterful study on Plato’s Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1995), and also some feminist political theory, which obviously demands taking a look at some key passages from Susan Moller Okin’s Women in Western Political Thought (Princeton, 1979). If you have a blog yourself, maybe you might find that your readers would be interested in discussing other key passages from those same books. Who knows? Or perhaps they’d be interested in discussions that other fine books from Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton and Sage happen to touch on.

I’m just sayin’.

Feel free to let me know what books you’re talking about with your readers about in the comments.

5 replies to How Intellectual Protectionism promotes the progress of science and the useful arts Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Laura J.

    Being a total bookaholic, I frequently buy and keep course materials that I find interesting, or other books from the same authors and organizations as those that came up in course materials. But I don’t like giving money to people who are cruel. I think I’ll be avoiding spending money on materials from these publishers you’ve mentioned as much as possible until such time as they adopt a more reasonable policy.

  2. Scott Scheule

    To be fair, so far as similar transactions being treated differently but for legal niceties, that’ll occur with any rule, whether it’s one respecting IP or traditional property rights. People will come up right to the edge of legality and once they’re there, of course they’ll be doing something very similar to something illegal.

· June 2008 ·

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2008-06-07 – The Passive-Aggressive Freedom-Lover’s Distibuted Book Club #2: Terence Irwin, Preface to Plato’s Ethics, vii-x:

    […] I was saying the other day, I’ve been thinking that my readers might be interested in some of the topics that Terence Irwin […]

Post a reply

By:
Your e-mail address will not be published.
You can register for an account and sign in to verify your identity and avoid spam traps.
Reply

Use Markdown syntax for formatting. *emphasis* = emphasis, **strong** = strong, [link](http://xyz.com) = link,
> block quote to quote blocks of text.

This form is for public comments. Consult About: Comments for policies and copyright details.