The issue of copyright really hit home for me today. On my flight to Singapore, I finished reading the book Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig, and at the end, the author addresses the particular loss of freedom by library users as journals have switched from paper copies to online electronic versions. Basically, libraries make freely available to anyone the content of the printed journals that they subscribe to. But the libraries are barred from offering free access to their electronic counterparts. The reasoning behind this is certainly valid because an electronic document can be copied and distributed freely beyond the library’s (and publisher’s) control in this age of the Internet.

So in light of this, I’m thinking about the meeting I had at work today. The journal I work for is considering entering into a deal with a major scientific publisher who, for the price of the exclusive right to publish and distribute the journal (paper and electronic wise), will market our journal beyond our capacity to do so ourselves. I was presented with this news today and asked for my opinion. I am not a member of the board of directors who will make the decision, but I was approached as a foreign consultant.

The deal doesn’t sit right with me. It sounds, at first hearing, like a deal with the devil. For the price of our soul, we get a good marketing deal. The goal is to increase our circulation and hence our standing in the field of Atmospheric Science journals. I have no problem with this. But the price seems high. I am still trying to figure out if it is too high. For one, while still retaining copyright over the journal (in fact, sharing it with the publisher), the deal involves giving up our right as copyright holder to distribute the journal electronically. This means the current free offering of our articles on our website would no longer be permitted. New articles would only be available online through the publisher’s website, no doubt for a fee.

One of the issues that was raised in the meeting today was the effect this would have on our students. The journal I work for is published in house by the Institute of Atmospheric Physics. The institute has several dozen graduate students who make use of the electronic version of our articles. If this deal were to be accepted, it would be up to the students (or the institute) to purchase a subscription for the content they now enjoy for free. While I am not opposed to paying for content as a general principle, it should be clear that the students would be paying for something that is already theirs (indirectly, at least, as members of the institute).

Furthermore, Lessig’s description of the various licensing schemes of the Creative Commons License (which aims to balance the extremes of “All rights reserved” and “No rights reserved” of the current copyright system) brought the following point to mind. There is a Creative Commons license that grants free use of a copyrighted work to those in developing nations. There is also a license that specifies free educational use. This made me realize that this proposed deal with the major scientific publisher could be unfair to citizens of the People’s Republic of China, a developing nation by some standards, who are potential subscribers to the journal, and to member states of the Third World Academy of Sciences, as these two groups have smaller incomes and budgets compared to their developed counterparts. This exclusive right to publish and distribute gives the publisher the right to set the subscription rate. So it is for this reason that I feel the journal would be giving up too much of its rights in this deal. That is, would the needs of our subscribers and potential subscribers be considered by this publisher? In accepting the deal, we write ourselves out of that decision.

Perhaps there is something to be learned from the free software / open source movement. Open source software is computer code that is released under a certain license that explicitly states that all copies of the software must be distributed along with the source code (the bits of the software that are human readable that can be used to inspect and modify the software). The source code and the software are still under copyright. What is possible, though, is that the copyright owner may choose to release the source code simultaneously under different licenses that permit different uses and give different rights.

So perhaps it is possible for the journal to grant an exclusive right of distribution to this publisher while simultaneously releasing the articles under a different licensing scheme, one that encourages free academic use. I would suspect that it would not be possible for the journal to do this directly, but instead to get the authors of the articles themselves to release their work under a separate scheme. But for this, I think we would need a team of lawyers to wade through these waters safely.

Still, it feels like a deal with the devil. I guess anyone contemplating such a Faustian bargain needs to decide what their goals are—in particular, ultimate goals—and who they want to become. In light of these values so discovered, counting the cost becomes much easier.

What would you do?