JJF says don't just sign publishers' copyright contracts


A letter to my graduate students and co-authors --

Dear All,

I have a request and an offer about copyright transfer agreements and publisher's contracts.

First some context:  There is a power struggle going on in the publishing world about authors' and publishers' rights.  Publishers are trying hard to remove rights from authors.  Academic authors often are utterly unaware of the struggle or the risks, thinking they can just sign these pieces of paper and it really doesn't impact them in real life.  However, this is a lot like the current financial crisis -- people were thinking it didn't matter if they made bad loans because, gee, it seems not to matter, but in the end it crashes down.  Some publishers are very likely going to call in the rights you have signed away without your even realizing you signed them away.  This is not just about your right to re-use the work.  It can also be about your right to be credited with the work and to have a say over how it is used. A horror story has happened recently regarding a book published by an academic publisher (I know because this story was written up in the 15 Aug 2008 Chronicle of Higher Education).  The authors of the book didn't notice they had signed away certain rights.  After the first book was published a great portion of their writing was used in a different book by the same publisher under the name of a different author-- without crediting the original authors at all!  There was no copyright violation; the publishers simply turned the first set of authors unwittingly into ghost writers.  The publishers eventually did attempt to make ammends but explained that the situation was due to "rather confusing contractual arrangements" (according to the 15 Aug 08 Chronicle article). Publishers may also sometimes change the content of the work but keep the author's name on it if that right has been signed away.  Many copyright forms do sign this right away -- the right to give consent to having one's name attached to the work.  Suppose I write an article about say, memory for trauma, and then the publisher lets someone else edit it, changing the meaning, but keeps my name on it?  If I have signed that right away, then so be it: they can do that.  These examples may sound unlikely but they are increasingly happening in part because independent publishers are being absorbed by a small number of super-publishers (e.g.: Wiley, Taylor & Francis) and thus the mega-conglomerates get more and more powerful without much to counter their power. 

Except us: we are the potential counter to their power.  They need authors. 

There is a small organized academic authors' rights movement, mostly centered in libraries, to this increasing power of publishers.  Here is a handout created by one of these organizations (SPARC) trying to counter publishers' increasing control.  I have had very good success myself when getting contracts from publishers asking for too much -- I have written back with a counter proposal and in almost all cases my counter proposal has been accepted, or some compromise has been reached.  Although publishers ask for more and more from authors, in fact they really don't need it.  They usually just need a LICENSE to publish the work -- not all of this stuff about giving away your first born.

Here is my request and my offer:

1) If you get any contract or transfer form to sign and I'm involved in any way as a co-author please do not sign the form without consulting with me.  When you sign a form like that you may be signing away MY rights and therefore it is essential to me that you give me the opportunity to indicate my consent.  I recommend you treat all co-authors this way -- always get your co-authors' consent before signing any contracts that would limit their rights.  Certainly if I get any contracts to sign involving any of you, I will not sign them without your consent.  My rule here is MUTUAL CONSENT. 

2) If you get a publisher's contract to sign not involving me you are welcome to forward it on to me  and I'll take a look.  I see what authors are signing away and how that can get them into a hole -- for instance, they want to reuse some aspect of THEIR work but they have signed a contract with a publisher that has since been purchased by a different publisher (always a bigger meaner one) and they find their hands are tied.  I also see this an empowerment issue.  Why should we meekly sign away our rights to our intellectual work to commercial entities?