Predatory pricing practices and support of draconian copyright ‘reforms’ have led to a boycott of academic publisher Elsevier, boycott which has been gathering a significant amount of momentum: about 3,000 academics have pledged to neither publish, referee, or do editorial work for journals associated with Elsevier (this article from the Guardian offers further background). The boycott comes at a time when many academics are wondering exactly what academic publishers contribute to the university and whether other forms of distribution and review would be preferable—perhaps modeled on the success of arXiv.org.
The reality, for better or worse, is that we are all living in a liminal ‘post-Napster’ era where technology, folk use, entrenched interest, and law conflict; and that as a result issues of intellectual property and copyright across all sectors of the economy will only loom larger in the years to come. Apart from a simple moral discomfort with the monetization of the results of publicly-funded research, the friction between academics and publishing companies is a result of the increased obsolescence of traditional production and distribution channels: what goes for the music industry, it appears, goes for publishers as well. Without a physical impediment to the dissemination of the product, the artificial scarcity created by gate-keepers feels increasingly anachronistic. The publishing industry’s reliance on the volunteer-work of reviewers and writers means that their status as ‘middle-men’ could only be justified on the grounds of a real service provided: the printing and distribution of physical objects—bound volumes of paper. In philosophy, as elsewhere, more work is being done online, in ‘pre-peer review’ forums and made available on authors’ websites in pre-print form, then distributed b
y informal networks of interested colleagues. Why, then, should on
e “work for hire” at all?
In the midst of this debate, Western University has signed a contract deal with Access Copyright that effectively legitimates the ‘old regime’ of intellectual property. Instead of dealing squarely with the future, we see here and elsewhere established interests use their political clout to extend their business practices long past their sell-by dates: SOPA, PIPA, C-11, ACTA artificially extend the old copyright ecosystem despite changes in the environment that favors open access, open source, and open standards.
There is also a significant empirical question, not sufficiently asked, whether or not the intellectual property regime even benefits us at all: are we better or worse off because the internet as a whole does not run on a proprietary architecture? Would the world be a better place if Salk had applied for a patent on the polio vaccine? Should the results of academic research be available to subscribers only, in a strange patchwork of access contingent on one’s institutional subscriptions? The future, it seems, belongs to the open.