Copyright Reversion

After enactment of the first copyright law in England in 1710 (the Statute of Anne), rights to works reverted to the author after a period of 14 years–if the author were alive. If not, the works entered the public domain. A living writer could renew copyright for an additional 14 years. Reversion to authorial control, in other words, was built into the law. This level of ownership of the work by the author (not the copyright holder, often a different entity) disappeared after the 18th century, all rights now resting on the copyright holder.

A step towards moving copyright control back to authors–in scholarly situations, at least–was taken by the Modern Language Association (MLA) the other day. The new agreements:

leave copyright with the authors and explicitly permit authors to deposit in open-access repositories and post on personal or departmental Web sites the versions of their manuscripts accepted for publication.

In the past, control of copyright (as in most other instances) has remained with the publication. Now it is beginning to be returned to the scholars, setting a new standard for ownership of scholarly work and constituting a frontal assault on the barriers to dissemination of scholarship set by academic publishers, especially the commercial ones.

According to InsideHigherEd:

The new MLA policy appears to move beyond those of other humanities organizations — although some of them have created ways to work with authors who want their scholarship in open access repositories. The American Historical Association, for example, holds copyright on articles that appear in its journals, but its author agreement tells authors that — if they ask — they will be granted permission to post articles in repositories and on personal websites. The Organization of American Historians — which publishes The Journal of American History with the Oxford University Press — gives authors a link that can be used for open access repositories. But Nancy Croker, director of operations for the OAH, said that “we do hope that an author would not circulate their article in such a way that it jeopardizes the integrity of the publication as a whole.”

In other words, Croker is saying that publications come before authors and come before the needs of the community of scholars, that access is some sort of gift, not a right. The publication still wants control. With its new policy, the MLA is arguing otherwise, that the publications will be better served by openness than by any semblance of control of work that was, of course, done by others in the first place (and, for the most part, done unpaid by the publications).

This is a great advance–even if it is really only a reversion. Let’s hope that other publishers of scholarly work will be willing to follow suit. Of course, they may eventually have to: fewer and fewer of us are willing to pay to go behind publisher firewalls, especially when we are paying only to fill the coffers of commercial enterprises, not to support the work itself.