Among his many accomplishments, Lawrence Lessig can count on being a prominent professor of law (currently at Harvard), a founder of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, and the author of 5 general-interest books on the topic of “law and technology, especially as its affects copyright”. I listed his accomplishments in this order* because I want focus on the publication of his books, specifically how they are all licensed under various Creative Commons (CC) licenses.
Whatever the particulars, we cannot overlook the the overriding implication of Lessign having licensed his books with CC: they’re free! That’s right! Free! The sweetest, least-heard word in the contentious area of intellectual property means that I can download and read all of Lessig’s books, in their entirety, without paying him or his publisher a penny. Free!
I marvel at Lessig having licensed his works in this way all the more because he published with commercial presses. For instance, The Future of Ideas is published by Random House who retains rights “beyond the scope of this [CC] license” while Remix, his 2008 book, is brought out by Penguin. So Lessig was able to get his books published by members of the Big Six publishers, meaning he got all the advantages conferred by having a professional editorial staff and distribution arms of a big publishing house, while holding on to the ability to make his books available for free. Marvelous!
It makes one wonder why other academics aren’t publishing under similar terms. After all, these professors — like Lessig — aren’t relying on the revenue streams generated by their books to earn a living. They’re already remunerated by their universities and in most cases wish to disseminate their research to a wider audience rather than make more money from the publication of their works.
So what’s the reason? I would speculate that some academics don’t feel like they have the clout to negotiate more favorable terms with their publishers — with the shrinking of scholarly monograph publishing, perhaps some faculty feel fortunate to have been able to publish at all. However, I would further speculate that this isn’t the case for all trade publishing done by academics. Academic superstars by Paul Krugman, Esther Duflo, and Edward Glaesar can surely dictate terms to their publishers better than most. Why don’t they? My last speculation of the day: they just don’t realize that they can.
Having never retained the copyright to their works in their most usual forms of publication — commercial scholarly journals — academics from outside the law schools (where the faculty do insist on keeping their copyright) don’t know that they can demand such concessions in their publishing contracts. So the discussion doesn’t come up; so we don’t see more commercially published books licensed under CC, and we don’t see more research articles available for free. This is a terribly waste — for a cheap, always-hungering-for-free reader like myself but also for the process of scholarly communications.
What can we do to change this inefficient equilibrium? How can we best inform and persuade our researchers to bargain for their rights — and their readers’ — better?
*: Lessig lists his accomplishments in this order too, roughly.