Copyright kills

Copyright kills innovation (via No Rock And Roll Fun). During my masters in 2005, we had a tutorial about digital publishing and one of the texts for the class was this 1999 article by John Sutherland. After some descriptions of sharp practice by academic publishers, Sutherland gets down to the meat of what’s bothering him: the LRB, the TLS and the Guardian have all started republishing his work digitally, without paying a further fee. I don’t remember there being much sympathy for Sutherland among the aspiring young academics in the room. For one thing, I think most of us would have accepted publication on much worse terms than Sutherland was getting, and happily. For another, Sutherland’s distinction between the online and paper versions of a journal seemed absurd: the Guardian is the Guardian, whether it’s published in paper and ink or zeroes and ones. And lastly, I thought at the time of the seminar that there was something rather greedy about expecting to be paid in perpetuity for any piece of work. Sutherland’s final flourish in the article felt unearned:

One has to weigh advantages. The growth of databases and electronic archives is something to be encouraged. On the other hand, it would be unnatural not to feel alarmed at the commercial stranglehold which their creation permits. […] Freelance authors, as the romantic name for them implies, are less constrained than employees. Subservience is as corrosive in journalism as it is in academic research. Freedoms of thought and expression are at risk. Is this a price worth paying for the new conveniences of knowledge?

As students, the benefits of accessible knowledge were pretty obvious to us; the dangers of John Sutherland feeling “subservient”, not so much. After all, if knowledge isn’t accessible, it doesn’t matter how excellent it is. And as someone now trying to make money from writing, I’m more frustrated by my work being held offline than I am by the idea that there are people reading my words for free: I want to be able to use earlier work to advertise myself for new jobs, and I can’t do that through a convenient website when the publisher owns the copyright. I’m not denying that there’s a case for copyright, but the difference between my feelings and those expressed by Sutherland is that I expect being a writer to involve, you know, writing – rather than ticking along on the royalties from past work.