“No use without payment”

Today I’ve just received a note from a publisher, who plans to reprint one of the papers I have written and which is available on my open-access page.  They write that “The Publisher  … as rights holder, has granted us permission for the reproduction”; they also explain how much they’re going to sell it for and why it’s too expensive for them even to send me a copy.  I have written back to say:  “You are under a misapprehension.  The publisher is not the rights holder; I am.”

I was at a reception last week for members of ALCS, the Authors’ Licensing and Copyright Society.  ALCS collects royalties for copying and internet distribution, and  distributes proceeeds to authors. I offer lots of my stuff for free because I want it to be read.  I benefit from copyright to some extent, because I’m not a saint and it’s very gratifying to pay for the writing I’d be doing anyway,  but that doesn’t mean that I’m wholeheartedly committed to the principle of getting money every which way, and when the Chair of ALCS called for “no use without payment”, I winced.  As a writer of non-fiction, most of the time at least, nearly everything I do is built on foundations laid by other people.  Academic work in general, and science in particular, depends on knowing what’s been done, taking it, shaping it and taking it further. Copyright restrictions often get in the way of that.  They stop free distribution or detailed quotation; academic papers are often put behind paywalls; some texts are restricted so that they can only be read in certain places.

I’m sceptical, too, that this kind of thinking really helps the creative artists who are supposed  to benefit from it.  The way that work gets known is that people share it with each other.  How many of us can name a favourite song, poem or piece of music that we didn’t first read or hear for free? Which of us hasn’t eventually paid for our favourites in some way, whether it’s by buying a copy, going to a performance, giving it as a present, getting someone to buy it for us, or the like?  The contents industry is fond of saying that replication is killing creative work. The opposite is true. Replication is the life-blood of science, art, performance, education and creativity. It’s the suppression of copying that is stifling intellectual and creative development.  And that’s why, when the publisher gets round to asking me nicely, I’ll agree to the piece being republished anyway.

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