This Kat sometimes wonders whether every big copyright dispute these days seems to have a major political or philosophical subtext to it -- an example of which can be found below. From guest contributor Emma Perot comes this appraisal of a dispute (reported on TorrentFreak here) between a giant publisher of valuable and useful scholarly material on the one hand, and those who seek access to that same information on the other. Writes Emma:
Copyright Act 1976) to the publisher. As such, Elsevier is entitled to charge whatever access fee they desire, or to restrict access all together. By reproducing these articles without Elsevier’s permission, Sci-Hub is infringing Elsevier’s copyright and is likely to lose the case against it. Nonetheless, Elbakyan is insistent on fighting for continued open access as she believes that “Everyone should have access to knowledge regardless of their income or affiliation”.
The author is sympathetic to Elbakyan’s stance and believes that her moral argument is compelling, if not viable under the current capitalist regime. The history of copyright protection reveals an idealistic beginning which better accords with Elbakyan’s philosophy. Copyright protection in the U.S has a foundation in s.8 of the U.S. Constitution which states that“The Congress shall have power … to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”This clause underpins copyright with utilitarianism by providing an incentive of control to authors. The purpose of this control is to encourage (but not guarantee) the creation of products which will contribute to the growth of society.
The main criticism of the incentive theory is that people create works even in the absence of intellectual property protection. This seems apparent on the facts before us as authors who publish with Elsevier surrender their copyright protection at the first possible opportunity. Even if the control incentive (there are many other forms of incentive such as reputation building, money, and pure interest) were necessary to encourage research, the utilitarian philosophy does not bode well in a capitalist society where publishers such as Elsevier operate to make a profit rather than to further the altruistic goal of disseminating information.
Different approaches can be taken to overcome the barriers presented by legal paywalls. One such approach is to publish in independent, open access journals. The problem with this is that researchers want the benefit of the prestige associated with well-established, peer-reviewed journals. While this may seem like an egotistical issue, researchers spend years trying to develop a reputation of excellence in order to be presented with more opportunities for advancement. Publishing in a well-respected journal ensures quality control standards have been met, thus validating the article. This is particularly so in the science world where research often requires funding to access lab facilities and equipment.
Pay wall or ordinary wall?
They're all the same to Hubert
Alternatively, researchers could boycott publishers such as Elsevier with the aim of reducing access fees. The Cost of Knowledge, which encourages publishing in open access journals, is currently doing this and has attracted over 15,000 signatures to date. Signatories agree not to publish or perform editorial work for Elsevier’s journals. The success of this boycott is dependent on attracting a large enough number of people to damage Elsevier’s profits and reputation, causing them to reduce fees to regain customers.
While no solution is perfect, the author is open to ideas on how we can facilitate better access to research. The copyright dilemma is easily understood by those with a legal background, but to researchers such as Elbakyan, “…the idea that knowledge can be a private property of some commercial company sounds absolutely weird...” This statement misunderstands the idea/expression dichotomy as Elsevier does not actually own the knowledge but rather the expression of the knowledge in the form of the articles. However, with constrained public access, this dichotomy appears to be legal fiction as those with limited finances will continue to be deprived of knowledge or rely on the less than legal methods of Robin Hood researchers.