Mitch Allen, a publisher that I greatly respect, commented on my blog posts about Aaron Swartz and scholarly communications in archaeology. His comments got me thinking again about the issue in some depth, and I want to take the opportunity to write about it in preparation for the SAA conference in Hawaii.

Allen thought I was probably overstating the legal issues associated with sharing logins and sharing files to get scholarly publications. Sadly, I don’t think my statements were hyperbole:

  • Sharing logins to gain access to university library systems can involve grave legal risks. It violates the same sort of violations of terms-of-service that made Aaron Swartz face 50 years in prison. For instance, JSTOR’s terms of service (that Swartz allegedly violated in his felony charges) specifically prohibited actions like sharing logins.
  • Sharing papers (mainly in email, but also social networking sites) also carries risks, mainly in civil and not criminal law (but that could change if something like SOPA passes). Mass copyright lawsuits with financially ruinous penalties happen- even involving 100,000 people at a time, including children.
  • Litigiousness has entered the scholarly domain. University presses are suing universities over e-reserves to curtail “fair-use” (limitations in copyright law to allow research, instruction, critique, free speech).
  • Law Prof. John Tehranian published a study where he calculated a jaw-dropping $4.5 billion in potential copyright liability involved in routine academic research and instructional activities over the course of a single year.

I think the evidence is clear that current intellectual property rules carry significant legal risks for everyone. It’s worse for researchers at the margins of the profession who lack their own institutional logins.

Normative Publishing Practices and Antiquities Trading

Network security laws and copyright laws are unjust because they carry such disproportionate penalties. Huge commercial scientific publishers like Elsevier push to further strengthen these draconian laws. Elsevier lobbied in favor of SOPA, a bill that would have made even non-commercial infringement a felony offense. That would have put many routine library activities at risk. Copyright has expanded in scope into a more or less absolute and perpetual property right. No US copyrighted works entered into the public domain last year.

Like it or not (and I don’t), this legal context shapes academic communication and shapes its ethics. Regarding my point about the antiquities trade, yes, that was purposeful polemic to highlight these ethical issues. To expand on this point, if archaeologists only communicate their results as all-rights-reserved intellectual property, they’re clearly engaged in a form of appropriation. The (more or less) absolute (no fair use) and perpetual (de facto unlimited copyright terms) nature of these property rights increasingly excludes all uses, save commercial transactions. Doesn’t that reduce the scholarly record of the past into commodities?

Status quo publishing practices also carry similar destructive externalities as the antiquities trade. In the antiquities trade, only beautiful or rare objects get valued and contextual information is neglected and destroyed because it has no market value. How different is Academia then, when researchers think that only the final polished article or monograph has any value? What happens to all of that rich contextual information that can’t be squeezed into a 10 page paper? While researchers have very different and much more pro-social goals than antiquities traders, publishing incentives and practices clearly need to better align to those goals.

Open Access and Commerce

Lastly, the open access and open data movements are not anti-commercial. The public good that comes from public financing of research means making information resources that can be used commercially. The normative definitions of “Open Data” explicitly allow for commercial uses, as do open access publishers like PLoS. With Open Context, we happily work with commercial publishers to try to build incentives for the better treatment of primary data.

While Open Data and Open Access are not (usually) anti-commercial, these movements are anti-monopoly. They grew in response to the increasing absurdities of global intellectual property regimes that perpetuate monopolies of big media conglomerates. My objection to the status quo is not that publishing involves commerce, I object to fact that we’re largely failing to make any public goods (despite public funding), since the vast majority of academic communication happens in a monopolistic and exclusionary way.

Getting Past the Dysfunctional Status Quo

Something is obviously very screwed-up when university presses sue universities over e-reserves and many researchers lack the means to legally participate in their discipline’s communications. I don’t think the current situation works to anyone’s interest, except for large conglomerates like Elsevier. It certainly doesn’t help small publishers like Left Coast Press, since the cost escalations of the big commercial science publishers mean less budget to buy humanities and social science books (as eloquently noted by Cathy Davidson). It is self-defeating for archaeology’s professional societies to fight (or avoid) open access, since they are simply helping to perpetuate cost-escalations in the areas of scientific publishing (chemistry, biology, computer science) that university administrators prioritize over the humanities and social sciences. Our professional societies need to consider this larger economic reality when determining their positions on open access.

The work of publishers like Mitch Allen are important to the health of archaeology. His efforts add value and quality to archaeological communications. I am very open to debate about what constitutes the right balance between public and private in archaeology’s information resources and also a debate about how we finance quality publishing. However, I stand by my point that our current policy of investing almost nothing in public (open) information resources hurts our discipline and puts many of its practitioners in legal jeopardy.


Lawyers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation just posted a piece about the issues of felony violations of terms of service. Look at Point 4, substitute Pandora with JSTOR or a university library and you’ll see how all this applies to scholarship. See also this discussion of library licensing terms, since:

It is, however, very clear that licensing terms, which govern an increasingly large proportion of our collections, are a fundamental issue in the present and future usability of library resources by our campus populations.