Should Academic Writing be Copyrightable? | Kairosnews

A recent post on Kairosnews asks, Should Academic Writing be Copyrightable? | Kairosnews Specifically it suggests that faculty at public-funded universities should not own the rights to the work they produce, but instead that work should be owned by the university/state/public.

If indeed SUNY or the state of New York wanted to own the copyright to my writing, I suppose they would have to pay for the privelege. Currently, they do not, except in the case where the university specifically asks me to write something. This is part of the union contract. As such, any royalties I might get are not “extra” money, they are part of the negotiated compensation I receive as an employee. I think it is misleading to charge me with trying to steal from the public simply because I do my job and get paid for it by the terms of my contract. A change in the contract would be required, at least in my state, and I would obviously expect some other form of compensation.

In any case, there would be multiple problems with this suggestion.

1. This would mean that SUNY and the state would own the copyright. This is not the same as saying it is in the public domain. The fact that tax money supports something is not a basis for the public to claim a right to it. I have to pay to go into a tax-supported state park or drive on my tax-supported highway. I’m not even allowed to sleep in the tax-supported Governor’s Mansion or ride in his car. And so on and so on.

Now the state might be inclined to just give that copyright away, but I kinda doubt it. For one thing, we have a fair number of publishers in our state who like to make money selling those copyrights as textbooks and journal subscriptions. Those folks would not be happy. No, I am entirely certain that the state would simply keep the copyrights and take the royalties into its coffers.

Besides, even if they did put the work into the public domain, that doesn’t mean that it will be free, it just means I won’t get paid. That is, if I write a textbook and it is put straight into the public domain, then any publisher can print and sell copies of the textbook without paying me. Meanwhile, the student at the college bookstore will still be paying just as much. Or is the assumption that the state will be printing and freely distributing my textbook or that everyone will read it online at a website freely maintained by the state?

2. This would put an end to academic freedom at public universities. If SUNY owns the copyright to my writing, then I do not have the right to publish my own work or even alter it. I would have to ask their permission before publishing anything. Could I even maintain my own blog without their approval? Obviously if I wrote something objectionable, in their minds, it would never see the light of day. Think about the situation with my SUNY colleague Steven Kurtz of the Critical Arts Ensemble.Do we really want to suggest that the legislators in Albany should be the ones to determine what academic work gets published by SUNY faculty?

Of course not. I agree with the principle that academic work be freely accessible to the public. However, saying that academics at public universities should transfer their copyrights to their institutions and/or the state is simply not the way to make that happen.

  • Tough call. I imagine it could be considered a “work for hire” project in a sense. Who knows?