Public Domain on Trial in Reiss-Engelhorn Museum vs. Wikimedia et al.

Portrait of Richard Wagner
Digitisation of public domain works should not create new rights.
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Is it dangerous to take a public domain picture from Wikipedia and use it on your blog or print it on a T-shirt? Last week we wrote about a copyright case in Germany where several users of public domain pictures received letters from the lawyers of Mannheim’s Reiss-Engelhorn museum. The letters demanded payment for the use of photos of public domain art works that had been uploaded to Wikipedia. The museum justifies this legal action by pointing to the costs of digitizing their artworks and the respective acquisition of some form of ancillary copyright protection for simple photographs (“Lichtbildschutz”, § 72 in the German copyright law). On Wikimedia Commons, the repository that hosts media for Wikipedia, there is already a separate category for “Images subject to Reiss Engelhorn lawsuit”.

Amongst the several recipients of the letters were not only Wikimedia Germany and the Wikimedia Foundation, but also the online radio station detektor.fm and the non-profit website “Musical&Co”, which features music-related articles authored by children for children. Continue reading

Open Access and the Power of Editorial Boards: Why Elsevier Plays Hardball with Deviant Linguists

elsevier
Open Access: the revolt of the editors?
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The recent infight between the world’s largest academic publishing company, Elsevier, and (soon: former) editors of one their journals over attempts to make the journal open access – that is, freely available online – demonstrates the potential power of editorial boards in shaping the digital future of academic publishing.

The academic publishing system runs on reputation. Researchers gain reputation by publishing in reputable journals, which are more read and cited than other journals. The better the reputation of a journal, the more prestigious is it to review and serve as a member of the editorial board. Of course, the related reputation dynamic is self-stabilizing and highly path dependent because prestigious journals get more submissions, have higher rejection rates, more prestigious authors and reviewers, all of which contributes to being cited more often, which in turn is the key reputation metric in most disciplines (see a paper by Jakob Kapeller and myself on this issue for the field of economics).

The path dependence of journal reputation in contempary academic publishing is one of the reasons – if not the main reason – why new open access journals face a steep uphill battle against incumbent journals. The few open access journals that managed to acquire substantial prestige such as some of Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals did so mostly because of the very high prestige of founding editors, including nobel laureates. It is also the reason why simply calling for researchers to switch to open access outlets won’t work. Since careers and funding depend on the proven ability to publish in established “top journals”, researchers in general and early-career researchers in particular have strong incentives to avoid newly founded open access outlets. Continue reading

The Rhetoric of Copyright Extremism

In the end, nothing happened. When the European parliament adopted a compromise version of MEP Julia Reda’s evaluation report of the EU copyright directive, the attempt of MEP Jean-Marie Cavada to restrict the right to publish pictures of buildings and artworks permanently installed in public places (“freedom of panorama”) was voted down by a huge margin. The majority that had supported the Cavada amendment in the legal affairs committee vanished under a storm of protest, spearheaded by Wikipedians fighting for their right to include pictures of buildings and artworks in their free encyclopedia.

However, while the final version of the report did not suggest restricting freedom of panorama, it did not include a specific provision to protect it, either. Instead, member countries would still be free in whether and how to implement such a limitation into their respective national copyright laws. In a way, this outcome is a typical example of the widespread copyright extremism in Europe, which blocks even the most sensible and moderate copyright reform proposals.

The overall spectrum of opinions in current copyright debates ranges from abolitionism, that is, proposals to discard copyright altogether, to copyright extremism on the other side. Copyright abolitionism is a position sparsely mentioned in regulatory conversations. While authors Joost Smiers and Marieke van Schindel, for instance, have managed to create some buzz around their book “No Copyright”, the attention was only short-lived and the discussion left no real lasting mark on the conversation overall. And abolitionist positions brought forward by libertarian researchers such as Michele Boldrin, David K. Levine and their colleagues have only played a very marginal role in scientific discourse, as well.

However, we observe that rhetoric around ratcheting up extreme copyright protections plays a major role in the mainstream of regulatory conversations around copyright, while rarely recognized and called out as extremism. Rather, even the most far reaching positions are considered perfectly legitimate when brought forward in committee hearings, policy papers or campaigns. In a way, current copyright discourse is heavily skewed towards the side of copyright extremism, which makes any moderate and balanced reform of copyright laws difficult, if not impossible. Taking a closer look at the relentless rhetoric of copyright extremism might therefore help to identify and address this problem. Continue reading