Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Copyright law

US copyright law represents a bargain between creators and society. The government agrees to provide free enforcement of monopoly publishing rights for a certain number of years (currently the creator's life plus 70) to creators on top of any payment provided by readers. If the government didn't provide this benefit it would be hard for creators to sell copies of their works because unauthorized publishers could undercut the creator's own publishers.

This arrangement benefits society only when the creator makes use of the monopoly by selling the work. If the creator refuses to sell the work then the monopoly means no one can reproduce the work — an arrangement that benefits no one except used book dealers.

When the US adopted modern copyright law, in 1909, it was expensive to reproduce books. It was so expensive to set type that unless hundreds of reproductions were expected to sell it wasn't economical to reproduce a book. The invention of the photocopier (in 1938, but not available commercially until the 1960s) made it possible to reproduce single copies, but it wasn't until the founding of the Copyright Clearance Center in 1977 that creators could earn money when their works were photocopied. Today creators don't have to worry about keeping their works in print: they can merely register them with the Clearance Center.

Unfortunately very few works are registered with the Clearance Center. When a work is out-of-print and not registered with the Center it's difficult to pay the creator to copy it. So why isn't everyone registered? Many copyright holders don't know about it. Others don't feel enough users would license the work to justify the time to set up an account. Others don't even know they own the copyright. (Imagine you wrote a journal article. Do you own the copyright or does the journal? If you got hit by a bus tomorrow, would your heirs understand that they inherit your copyright and the ability to license it?)

Sometimes a work is licensed with the Clearance Center but not for the purpose you'd like. For example, the Israel Numismatic Journal is coded to direct professors wishing to photocopy classroom handouts to a PO box in Jerusalem to discuss reproduction permission. Business users aren't even given that address! If an auction house cataloger wishes to do the right thing and pay the Israel Numismatic Society to make a research photocopy the signal that they won't take the money! Clearly this is intentional. The Society has set up an account and coded it to give an address to academic users and blanket refusal to business users.

I prefer the clear prices set David Sear's Greek Coins and Their Values: five cents a page for schools, ten cents a page for businesses.

My preference for clear prices and the possibility of businesses licensing works doesn't mean anything under the law. The rightsholder makes the rules and the readers must live with it. It's clearly the right of the INS to refuse business from businesses. Yet I feel the exercise of reproduction refusal is harmful to society. Denying others a legal avenue to photocopy scientific papers does not promote the Progress of Science.

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