Open Access: circumventing excessive copyright protections

With all the talk around Open Access Week, many of our researchers might be wondering Why do we even need to adopt open access? and What problem does it really solve? Copyright is one of the key underlying factors that adds friction and costs to distribute and reuse knowledge products – a friction that open access largely addresses.

Copyright wasn’t always considered such a problem. When Britain passed the Statute of Anne in 1710 – the first copyright legislation of its kind – it was primarily intended to promote public learning and the dissemination of knowledge through the formal recognition of authors’ rights to their works, effectively offering an incentive for creators to create. In the contemporary context, the copyright in literary works is the exclusive right to reproduce, publish, perform, communicate and adapt the work, among others. These rights are bestowed on authors automatically, even for those pivotal works such as your emails and shopping lists.

So, how is this a problem – robust author’s rights sound like a good thing, right!?  They can be, however commercial interests often acquire these rights and have been very successful in lobbying for extensions to copyright duration ever since the Statute of Anne.

In the United States for instance, the copyright term back in 1790 lasted just 14 years, plus another 14 with a renewal. It was then extended to 28 plus 14 years in 1831; 28 plus 28 in 1901; the life of the author plus 50 years in 1976; then finally the life of the author plus 70 years in 1998. Almost all countries have implemented at least life plus 50 as a result of the Berne Convention, with Australia adopting life plus 70 when it ratified the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement in 2005.  In parallel, patent protections for inventions – which similarly serve both commercial and public interests – generally remain at just 20 years and function perfectly well to balance these objectives.

So, far from promoting the dissemination of knowledge as originally envisaged, copyright now locks up most works for well over a century. Economists have been questioning the validity of copyright since the 1860s, with research failing to identify any empirical evidence that it operates as an effective incentive for productivity, let alone to justify the excessive extensions to copyright duration. This is underlined by the dearth of readily available titles from the latter half of the 20th century, as this article from The Atlantic highlights.

While a shortening of copyright terms might go a long way to unlock and freely disseminate these works, arguing that authors should take a reduction in rights is understandably politically unpalatable. Fortunately, open access offers a simple alternative to overcome the copyright conundrum. By applying a Creative Commons or other open access licence, authors can waive certain rights to ensure their material and the knowledge enclosed can be freely distributed and reused, both immediately and for generations to come. Even for those shopping lists!

by Will Rossiter, Copyright and Licensing Coordinator, University Library

Tagged in copyright, open access, open access week