Setting the STAGE
In 1997 Richard Stallman, free software advocate, wrote The Right to Read, a short story in which he describes the year 2047. It is a dystopian society, where the Software Protection Authority (SPA) in conjunction with Central Licensing controls all knowledge in the world. “Each book had a copyright monitor that reported when and where it was read, and by whom” (Stallman). Violations of the copyright policy led to serious jail time and heavy fines. Academics were forced to go into debt to read their colleagues’ research, and all but the wealthiest students failed university due to their inability to afford “reading fees”.
While this future may seem far-fetched, some of it has already come to pass. In a letter, signed by various academics, artists, writers and free software advocates, titled In solidarity with Library Genesis and Sci-Hub, the authors explain the ongoing information crisis. Publishers of academic work charge licensing fees for their databases “at prices so scandalously high that even Harvard, the richest university of the global north, has complained that it cannot afford them any longer” (Custodians). Robert Darnton, a previous director of the library, explains, “We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free… and then we buy back the results of our labor at outrageous prices.” The letter was written in response to a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by Elsevier, the largest academic publisher in the world. Elsevier, who reported in 2018 a 37% profit margin, targeted Science Hub and Library Genesis, both of which are websites that offer academic journals and other copyrighted materials for free, a severe violation of the DMCA. As a result of the suit, both sites were temporarily taken down, with Elsevier awarded $15,000,000 in damages.
Publishers vs. People
Elsevier operates on the subscription model to manage copyright. Under this model, ownership of the copyright is transferred from the authors to the publisher. This contrasts to open access, which allows the authors to maintain their copyright while enabling the publisher to share the author’s work. Elsevier additionally does not allow self-archiving of academic work, which is the practice of authors distributing freely their work for others to view. All of these factors allow companies like Elsevier to abuse researchers and extort universities into paying exorbitant fees to access their databases of academic writing.
Copyright law has led to the rise of a toxic and degenerative environment for higher education by indirectly enabling publishing companies to force universities into expensive licensing agreements. Stronger regulations must be put into place to force academic publishers to adopt the open access model or to lower their licensing fees. As long as the system continues, activists will continue to pursue free information for all, as shown by the creators of Library Genesis and Sci-Hub.