Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Fighting artificial scarcity

Georgia Harper, OA, IRs and IP: Open Access, Digital Copyright and Marketplace Competition, text of a presentation at the ALA Midwinter meeting (Denver, January 23-28, 2009).  Also see the slides.  (Thanks to Robert Richards.) 

Abstract:   The fundamental concerns about intellectual property for open access institutional repositories are not about who owns what rights, or who can do what with them, or what you have to require contributors to give your institution to be sure youíve got the rights you need to provide open access to their works. Those guidelines are readily devised and applied. The copyright conundrum created by open access is more basic than this: Is it appropriate, is it even necessary, and certainly, is it the best way going forward, to artificially make our works difficult to find and access and saddle them with high prices in an era when people all over the world could quickly know about our current research results through the Web for no more than the cost to them of their own infrastructure to find and read our works?

For more than 200 years copyright law has enabled, and scholars and their publishers have depended on, the mechanism of state-granted monopoly, "creating artificial scarcity" to give publishers a period of time during which they can charge higher prices than the market would otherwise dictate and recover their costs of publishing plus a profit in most cases. But today we have instant access to digital creative works, and easy, world-wide distribution for almost no cost for the reader beyond the cost of computers, internet access and electricity. In this world, the monopolistic mechanism of "artificial scarcity" turns what is one of the most important, most critical advantages of the digital world into something to be fought tooth and nail. The solution isnít stronger and longer copyrights. It more likely will emerge from massive experimentation to find satisfactory business models that can fund the creation of works, still a costly undertaking, without sacrificing the digital benefit of relatively free distribution to anyone and everyone who might desire to access our works.

Everyone in this room probably knows this. But what we may not realize is the magnitude of the experiment and what it also tests -- that if in fact it is not just possible but profitable to create and disseminate digital research results (or any creative digital work for that matter) without relying on the copyright monopoly, and if the social costs of monopoly begin to outweigh its public benefits in the coming world of ubiquitous repositories adding to ubiquitous Web content, all providing ubiquitous open access, the experiment tests the validity of the fundamental assumption underlying copyright, that monopoly is the only way (or even the best way) to achieve optimal production of most creative works.