Scholarly publishers shake down a copy shop

A group of scholarly publishers — Blackwell, Elsevier, Oxford University Press, Sage, and Wiley — last week won a judgment against a Michigan copy shop for assisting students in copying course packs. The students were copying articles from scholarly journals and chapters from scholarly books for assigned readings in their college classes.

A student wanting a coursepack comes to Excel’s [the copy shop] premises and fills out a form on which the student writes the course the student is enrolled in and for which the student needs the material. The form contains a statement to the effect that: “I am a student in this class and am making a copy for educational purposes.” The student signs and dates the form. The student hands the form over to an Excel staff member who retrieves the “master,” hands it to the student, who then makes a copy using Excel’s copy machines. [...]

Excel does not pay copyright fees to the publishers, which it admits enables it to charge a lower fee than if the students obtained the materials at a traditional “copyshop” [...]

Excel’s position that this is a case of protected student copying is sophistry. [...] Simply put, copyright law should not turn on who presses the start button on a copier. Excel’s actions violate the publishers’ copyrights.

My purpose is not to argue the legal merits of the decision. Rather, I want to highlight this case as an example of the social impacts of closed-access scholarly publishing. I particularly want to address researchers here.

Scholars: You conducted your research for the advancement of knowledge. In many cases, your research was supported by taxpayer dollars, whether in the form of a research grant or a university salary. You entrusted your research to the publisher, for the purpose of disseminating it. In many cases (for scholarly journals, not necessarily for books) you did so for no remuneration from the publisher. The publisher sells access to your work to universities and reaps massive profits: Elsevier alone reported more than $800 million in profits in 2008. When a small business tries to help students get access at a reduced price, the publisher sues to shut it down.

If that’s scholarship, then I want no part of it.

The publisher is wielding the copyright in your work as a legal bludgeon and supposing to act on your behalf. If you know this and you sign a copyright transfer with a publisher, then you are responsible.

There is an alternative.

For reference, the list of infringed works is here. Some are more than 20 years old.

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