Copyright and the Academy

A brief overview of copyright in the modern context and the way that copyright and publicly funded academic labour relate.

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There are differences between creator rights and owner/distributors’ rights. The creator of a work has the original ownership of the copyright for that work. However, under the current copyright system, if a creator wants to make money from their work then they generally have to give up or sell their ownership rights to a distributor. Thus, the “owner” and the “creator” may not be the same individual. In fact, owners tend to be large corporate publishing houses whereas creators are individual artists. This relationship is not a co-operative relationship since each is trying to maximise their profit from the work and the power relation between the creator and the owner is not equal either. While it is true that the creator of the copyrighted work needs the distributor to get money, the distributor usually holds the copyrights of many works from different creators, and, as such, there is greater ability on the side of the distributor to forgo the ownership of one copyright if they are not happy with the price.

The reason for distribution also differs between the creator and distributor. The creator usually wants their work to reach the widest possible audience in order to get recognition for creating the original work. However, a private, for-profit, distributor may want to limit access to drive up price and maximise profits.

This balance is supposed to be regulated by copyright legislation which helps bind the relationship between the creator and owner enough that the creator does get paid for the work they produce.

Copyright in Academia

There is a more complex relationship between the creator, the public (users), and the distributor of works when in the public education system.

In a public education system, the money to create original works comes from taxes, through the government, to the creator of works of art or research in the form of salary or grant. In addition, there may be many more people involved in a particular project than in the private setting. A professor may take on graduate students, who are also public employees, and there may be technicians that are paid to do work through research grant money. Their pay comes from the government through grants or scholarship which is from a publicly funded agency (e.g. NSERC, SSHRC, CIHR). As such, the creator has already been paid by the public for the work that they produce. Under this scenario there is little reason for the public to then have to pay restrictive user fees to get access to the works. The distribution of the content should, therefore, be done in a way to maximise access and minimise cost. With the invention of the Internet and with most documents produced by academics now being in digital form, there is little cost associated with having the information that academics produce available to everyone. In fact, even if there is a cost to this, it is marginal compared with the cost of producing the material in the first place.

For academic writing, the most efficient way to distribute the information is through Open Access Journals and Open Access distributors and publishers on the Internet. For art that is not digital, the works can be released under a less restrictive copyright to allow the works to be freely used (with attribution) by the public who paid for the work and by other students who are learning and producing new work. However, this does not mean that the student or professor would be giving the works away for others to make money from. The less restrictive copyrights can allow for the creator to maintain rights over any commercial production of their work such as printed book or reproduction meant for sale.


The history of copyright is not that long. Copyright first appeared in 1662 as a way to protect the creators of work and writings from being exploited by the monopoly of the print houses. At the time, printing presses were a brand new invention and were so expensive to own and run that only a few large monopolies had them. The new printing presses gave the printing companies the ability to print large numbers of books for a relatively small cost per book. The creators complained that these monopolies were making money off the results of others’ labour by mass producing books but not paying the writers their fair share of the profits. The printers also had many old books to print so there was little incentive to pay a writer very much to write a new book for distribution.

The governments at the time had to come up with a way for the users (the public) to be able to get new works and for the creators to be paid for the creation of their new work. Copyright acts were the result of this balance-seeking exercise and stopped the over-exploitation of the creator by the private printer/distributors. Money for creators and ownership rights for printers to make profit so that they would keep printing books.

To this end, Copyright was created with the intention of being limited in time, so as to protect the users’ rights (the public) to have access to works produced. It was understood at the time that if copyrights were infinite, that would hurt the people the works were intended to reach by limiting access and would reduce the incentive for the creators to create new works. It was also created with the intention of providing an equitable renumeration for the creators by providing a short period of time that writers could benefit from the selling of their works.

The intent was to have enough renumeration for the creators so that they may continue to create original works for the public. This is done through limiting the right of the public to copy these creations without paying the creator. However, the private printers (the large distributors and publishing monopoly capitalists) have constantly fought for increased control and more limitation on access to increase their profits and thus undermining the original intent of copyright.

Examples of abuses of this can be found in the way that the MPAA and other distributor coalitions work to restrict all access to materials and to lobby the government to allow them to control every level of the distribution process. This control is both to the detriment of the end users (the public) and the independent producer of works of art and research.

If we are to keep with the original intent of Copyright legislation, then the distributor’s rights should be limited to simply allowing for the efficient distribution of art and information. Increased access for the public and fair renumeration for the creator should be the only incentive for changes in the copyright law.

Intellectual Property

Intellectual Property is a term that tries to lump copyright, trademarks, and patents into a single group. However, these were intended to have different impacts on society and should not be lumped together if one wants to have an intelligent conversation about copyright and the outcome of intellectual and artistic labour.

It is also a term that tries to apply the word “property” to ideas. This should be critically evaluated since all ideas are not, in and of themselves, unique like that of other types of property. In fact, I would argue that copyrighted works were not considered “property” until the establishment of the World Intellectual Property Organisation in 1970. Until this time copyright at an international level was co-ordinated by its own agreements that maintained the original intent of copyright – to both increase public access and protect the fair renumeration for creators of copyrighted material.

Copyright in academic journal publishing

Currently, publicly funded university libraries have to pay out large sums of money so that the academic community can have access to its own works. This comes at a huge cost to the public and slows down distribution of information to those that do research which, in turn, slows the rate of innovation.

The public itself is all but completely left out of this equation and do not have access to the information produced by the research that they have funded. This is because academic libraries, needing to balance tight budgets, continue to sign agreements with the publishers where they agree to limit access to their materials to the academic community.

The for-profit distributors and publishers also limit access to this material to the developing world through charging these user fees. Limiting access only to the rich countries and universities restrains innovation and reduces the size of the effective research community. At the very least, it puts researchers that are in poorer universities (even in the first world) at a disadvantage by increasing the time that they have to wait to get access to “new” information. With the increase in the speed of research any amount of time that poorer researchers have to wait limits their ability to fully contribute.

Open Access, GNU and Creative Commons Licences

The push for increased access to works can be found in the formalised Open Access and limited copyrights movements. These movements seek to increase access to original works through recommending that individual creators attached less restrictive copyrights to their own works. Less restrictive copyrights like that of GNU Licences and the Creative Commons models of limited legal copyright allow more flexibility in allowing users the ability to access, copy, and redistribute original works.

These licences are used by those who want their works distributed to the widest audience. For this, the creator gives up some of their right to stop people from copying the work for certain uses such as non-commercial distribution.

Academic Environment

Open Access

Public funding for the creation of works of art and research in the academic sector is done through research grants and salaries for professors and researchers. Since the public has already paid for the labour needed to create works in this sector, it would make sense for the public to also have access to these works.

The licenses such as Creative Commons and other copyleft licences and Open Access repositories and distributors are a particularly useful method for achieving distribution efficiently and free to the user. Distributors that fall under the category of Open Access have to provide the information they distribute freely, right from the time they get the information to distribute, to the end-user. This is usually done through a website where articles or other works are stored in a searchable database and where users can download the article or work from the site.

The money needed to run the service is charged to those that create the work or through grant money. Usually, those who create the work use part of their research grants (public money) to pay for the service that Open Access distributors and publishers provide. Many funding organisations that provide research grants are starting to provide specific funding for the publishing of articles in these Online Open Access repositories. Examples include the Welcome Trust (UK), the National Institute of Health (US), and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (Canada).

There are over 100 000 peer-reviewed Open Access journals available online that can be found in the Directory of Open Access Journals ( which include high-impact journals like those of the Public Library of Science (

Creative Commons and Copyleft

Recently, some creators have expressed frustration at the limited nature of current copyright law and have looked for alternatives to restricting copying and distribution of their works. Alternatives that have been brought forward that seek to broaden instead of limit the right to copy and distribute original works fall collectively under the heading of Copyleft. Copyleft licences are attached to works that the creator wants to release some or all of their rights over their work. Copyleft uses current copyright law because it gives the creator the right to waive all or parts of the rights over their own work. Copyleft licences are simply the exercising of this right on a large scale.

The first major example of these kinds of licences was the GNU General Public Licence created to licence free and open source software. The licence applies to software code (which is covered under copyright law) that the creator wants to release into the public domain. The software code under GNU-GPL licence can be copied, altered, and redistributed freely so long as the user redistributes that new or altered code under the same licence. This allows computer programs under this licence to be manipulated and made better by users and then redistributed into the public domain for others to use and alter. An example of this is the distribution of the GNU/Linux operating systems.

Creative Commons

Another Copyleft licence called Creative Commons Licences has been developed that is more flexible that is now commonly used for works of writing and art.

Creative Commons licences is a legalese backed licence one can attach to their works if they do not want to “reserve” all rights allowed to them by copyright law. Currently, copyright law allows for very limited use of an original work by users without expressed permission granted by the author of that work. Creative Commons licences allow for the author to grant the user greater right to copy, distribute, or alter without the user having to contact the author. This is done through one of these less restrictive copyrights being attached to the work. If the work is being distributed digitally then simply a link to the Online version of the licence is all that is needed. When, as a user, you come across the Creative Commons (CC) mark then you can follow the link to the licence and see what rights the author has granted you beyond the restrictive copyrights under law.

There are many combinations of rights that the creator can grant users of his/her work. The additional rights have to do with the ability to:

  • Copy, distribute, or transmit the work
  • Use the work for commercial/for profit purposes
  • Apply original attribution to the work
  • Alter the work

For academic purposes there is interest in limiting the users rights to remove the original attribution of the work or alter the original work. However, there is interest in increasing the user’s ability to copy, redistribute, and perhaps use the work for commercial purposes.

This would be called an attribution-no derivatives Creative Commons Licence.

Pre-Print Archives

Pre-Print archives and repositories are another method of allowing other researchers and the public free access to the information contained in copyrighted articles. Pre-print archives hold in their repositories editions of article that were produced before the creator sold or transfered the copyright of the article over to the print publisher. This means that when the creator (the original owner of the copyright) was writing the article they had the right to distribute that work to where ever they wanted, including onto a website that allows people to download and copy the work. So long as the edition that is sent to the publisher/printer is different in some small way (layout, subtle changes in text, etc.) the “pre-print” that was put up on the website does not need to be taken down when the final edition is sent to the printers.

Such Pre-print Archives and repositories are available at some universities using DSpace and similar databases. One very popular Online repository is called which is hosted at Cornell University. This repository is used mainly by math, chemistry, physics, statistics, and computational biology researchers and Pre-prints of papers that have been published in high profile pay-per-view journals such as Science and Nature can be found on