Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Monday, March 10, 2008

Elsevier allows free use of limited content in MIT OpenCourseware

MIT, Elsevier Offer Free Content From More Than 2,000 Journals, a press release from MIT, March 7, 2008.  Excerpt:

In a move to encourage open education, MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) and Elsevier have agreed to make available figures and text selections from any of Elsevier's more than 2,000 journal titles for use on OCW.

As a result of this landmark agreement, select Elsevier content can now be included within the open access OCW course materials - to be freely downloaded, used and shared under a Creative Commons license. The Elsevier content includes up to three figures (including tables and illustrations) per individual article (or ten per journal volume) and up to 100 words from a single text extract (or 300 words from a series of extracts)....

Cecilia d'Oliveira, acting executive director of OCW said, "We hear from thousands of students, educators, and self learners everyday about how OCW materials have helped changed their lives. Offering additional resources to these people will make an even greater impact on open learning and education. We hope this agreement will inspire other publishers to join in these efforts to unlock knowledge and empower people around the world."


  • I've praised Elsevier before for its experiments with free online access (most recently for WiserWiki and OncologySTAT), and I'm prepared to do so again.  But I must say that the MIT deal is only good news if the snippets it covers exceed fair use.  If they don't, then the deal has the harmful effect of codifying a lower ceiling for fair use.  For example, three tables per article seems to exceed fair use, but the limit of 10 per volume seems to fall short.  The limit of 10 tables per volume could easily work out to zero per article for many articles.
  • This wouldn't be a problem if faculty could still take advantage of fair use to exceed the limits Elsevier lays down in this contract.  But does the contract rule that out?  And even if it doesn't, will the contract act as a de facto limit? 
  • On the other side, remember that Wiley once threatened legal action when Shelley Batts blogged one chart from one article.  In that light, we can appreciate that at least the MIT/Elsevier deal creates a zone in which MIT faculty may freely use Elsevier material without the usual fear of liability, and therefore without the usual pressure (often amplified by university counsel) to give up on fair use and err on the side of non-use.

Update.  Also see Jeffrey Young's story in the Chronicle of Higher Education, March 10, 2008.  Excerpt:

What if you’re not at MIT?

Mark Seeley, vice president and general counsel at Elsevier, says the company has also agreed to a new policy on copyright, set up by the International Association of Scientific, Technical, & Medical Publishers, allowing any college to post small bits of journal material online. The policy doesn’t allow quite as much as the deal with MIT does, however....

Update.  I can now clarify one point raised in my original comment above.  The MIT-Elsevier contract does not waive or limit the fair-use rights of MIT faculty.  According to Steve Carson, External Relations Director for MIT's Open Courseware project (quoted with permission),

This agreement provides the terms under which we can publish Elsevier materials under an open license on our site and does not address circumstances protected by fair use.  It is our preference to publish all materials under a clear and consistent license to ensure our site users understand how the materials may be used, and this agreement helps us to achieve that goal.