More “fun” with IP [Rerun Sunday]

My old blog still exists, but I haven’t touched it in a long while, and I’m gradually trying to migrate my major online presence over here. So I can envision a day, somewhere down the line, where “Revolution on a Stick” goes away. In the meantime, though, Sundays feel like a good day to salvage some of the posts from that blog that seem worth saving.

The post below originally appeared on 2 Oct 2006.


Jonathan Sterne tells the story of how the nice folks at Sage recently sent him the digital offprints of an essay he’s published in New Media and Society as a DRM-laden executable file, rather than as a PDF. He’s pissed off about it — rightly so, I’d say — and ends his post by expressing what he recognizes is a probably unrealizable desire to “never publish with them again.”

I haven’t heard of the DRM scheme Jonathan describes being used by other presses, but Sage is hardly alone when it comes to journal publishers who treat their authors badly when it comes to intellectual property rights. A recent essay of mine on Eminem (PDFs available upon e-mail request) ran up against a pair of quirky IP policies in place at Lawrence Erlbaum.

On the permissions end, the press demanded that I try and secure permission (at my own expense, mind you) from Eight Mile Music (Eminem’s music publishing company) before I could quote any of Eminem’s lyrics in the essay. It didn’t matter to the press that this was about as clear and obvious an example of the Fair Use provision of US copyright law as one could ask for: i.e., I was using relevant fragments of copyrighted material for purposes of criticism and scholarship. The press didn’t seem to see any hypocrisy or contradiction in only requiring me to secure such permission for lyrics, while comparable quotations from printed materials were understood to be acceptable scholarly practice. Perhaps most perplexing, however, was that the journal in which my essay appears is Popular Communication which, presumably, is going to publish an awful lot of essays where authors will want/need to quote non-print texts of one sort or another. All that really mattered here was that the press has an established policy about quoting song lyrics (even if that policy is more restrictive than the actual law would require) and that policy wasn’t likely to change anytime soon.

In the end, I did manage to win a small concession, in that I was allowed to keep the quoted lyrics in the essay provided I could demonstrate that I had made Good Faith efforts to secure formal permission for their use. Even so, I almost regretted this semi-sensible approach to the issue (it’s only semi-sensible because I was still forced to ask for permission when I shouldn’t have had to bother), since my backup plan would’ve been somewhat more embarrassing to the press. That plan involved pulling all the quoted lyrics from my essay, and then (in endnotes) directing readers to the various fan websites where all those lyrics (and more) can easily be found: fan websites that I could locate quite easily since there are links to them on Eminem’s official website.

On the back end of the process, when it came time for me to order my author reprints, I had three choices:

  1. Paper reprints. Minimum order of 100. Total cost: US$400.
  2. Digital reprint. An official PDF file of my article from Lawrence Erlbaum. Total cost: US$18.
  3. Nothing.

I suspect the official PDF reprint might have been a bit crisper than the one I could make for myself from the free copy of the journal issue to which I was already entitled . . . but not so much crisper that it would be worth paying for it. And I simply can’t imagine paying anyone $4/copy for any quantity of my own article: those are vanity press rates.

It’s probably easier for me to completely avoid publishing with Lawrence Erlbaum in the future than it is for Jonathan (or me, or anyone else working in media studies and/or cultural studies these days) to avoid publishing with Sage . . . but I’m also skeptical about whether authors really have enough clout to make publishers change their IP policies in any significant way. Journal editors might be able to pull this off (and, to their infinite credit, the then-editors of Popular Communication led off the issue where my essay appeared with a prefatory statement about the need for more scholarship-friendly permissions policies). And perhaps a collective effort by the bulk of a journal’s editorial board might make a difference. It is, after all, the editors and the editorial board of a journal who do the bulk of the labor that the average press is going to most immediately care about.


Updates:

  • Lawrence Erlbaum was acquired by Taylor & Francis shortly after the post above originally appeared, and so I removed the now-dead link that originally existed to their homepage.
  • You don’t have to email me to get a copy of that Eminem essay. You can simply download it here.

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