From Library Babel Fish, June 13, 2011

You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a route that passes through the middle ground between light and shadow. Your next stop – the copyright Twilight Zone!

Imagine it’s a year or two from now. You’re preparing to teach an upper division course and want to assign a dozen groundbreaking journal articles published over the past century. Last time you taught the course, students wrestled with the primary research, but it gave them a much better sense of how the disciplines works than any available textbook would. The registrar has just sent out a reminder to get your reading list together early so students can see how much their texts will cost when they register for courses. You dutifully go to the Compliance Office’s website and calculate how much students will need to pay to read the dozen articles that you plan to upload to Moodle. Wow, that was more than you thought! They won’t be too happy about paying $350 for articles they will have to print off themselves. You really don’t want to get hammered in student evaluations again. Maybe you can just summarize the main points in lectures.But you make a note to avoid quoting too much from any of them, since you seem to remember that if you read more than 500 words out loud, you might be in trouble. Or is it 400 words? Better play it safe; you got your hand slapped last semester for playing a YouTube video that it turned out was infringing.

You push that problem away to prepare for class. A special issue of your society’s journal published this week is devoted to the concept that you’re covering this afternoon. What a goldmine! One of the articles has a chart that will really get the idea across, and another one has a table full of results that would be perfect for a discussion. You make a couple of screen shots and start to insert them in your slide deck before remembering that you’re only allowed to use one illustration from any journal issue without first getting permission. You send quick e-mails to the authors, who you know from conferences. Both reply almost instantly. They’re thrilled that you want to use their research in your teaching. Unfortunately, they don’t own the copyright. You’ll have to go through the publisher. That’s okay, you know the publisher; it’s your society after all. But since the organization outsourced their publishing operations, the copyright belongs to a for-profit corporation based in Europe. You search for their permissions policy online, but run out of time. Would have been sweet . . .

After class you check your e-mail and find that an article you requested through interlibrary loan has arrived and is ready for pickup. You send a reply that the attachment seems to have been left off. The message you get back is so baffling you pick up the phone and call the library’s interlibrary loan department. A student employee answers. “Yes, we have it printed out for you. You can pick it up whenever we’re open. Oh, and we close at six today.”

“Why six?”

“Some budget thing.”

“But this article . . . why can’t you just send me the PDF?”

“That’s not allowed anymore. You have to come to the library to get it.”

You’re sure there’s some mistake. “Can I talk to your supervisor?”

“Not until tomorrow. She only works half time now.”

“Can you transfer me to the library director, then?”

It’s not a mistake. The director confirms that yes, starting this term, articles obtained through interlibrary loan have to be printed out and physically picked up in the library.

“Says who? Wait, is it those compliance busybodies? I can’t believe we’re setting up whole new administrative offices at a time like this. Do you realize the provost won’t authorize sabbatical replacements for our -”

“We lost four FTE. But it’s not our administration. These are national rules.”

“But . . . this makes no sense. To get an online article, I have to physically go to the library? We’re going backwards.”

“We did warn you. Those brown bag lunches we hosted last year?”

“Oh, yeah. They sounded really interesting. Wish I’d had time to go, but –”

“I wish you’d had time, too. Don’t forget, we close at six.” You put the phone down, wondering what pissed her off.

When you swing by the library to pick up the article, you’re shocked at what a terrible copy it is. “That always happens,” the student behind the desk explains. You know him; he’s a senior, a good student. He seems to know what he’s talking about. “See, the library that subscribes to the journal has to print it out and scan it,” he explains. “Then we get the scan and have to print it out again. It really degrades the quality.”

“That’s nuts. It would be so much easier to just send the PDF. There’s got to be a better way.”

“Tell me about it. Last week I had to spend thirty bucks to buy an article.” He shrugs. “My senior project involves chromatography. Black and white doesn’t cut it. I have this friend . . .” He looks around, lowers his voice. “They get the journal I need at his library. He’s sending articles to my Hotmail account.”

“I won’t tell,” you say solemnly.

A few weeks later you get a flyer in your box. Good news! Your students won’t have to pay permissions after all because the library now has a contract that covers permissions for the whole campus. But when you go to the library’s Website to find the articles you plan to assign, you’re startled to find they’re not there anymore. A librarian explains apologetically that they had to cancel the database that included those journals in order to pay the annual copyright license fee. You’ll have to buy a copy from the publisher. You stifle a groan. And it turns out two of the items on your reading list are not covered by the license, so you will either have to track down the rights holder and figure out how to pay them yourself or choose a different reading.

It’s been a frustrating day. You’re about to leave for home when a man raps his knuckles on the door frame of your office. He isn’t smiling. He introduces himself as the head of the Compliance Office. “You’ve been sending an unusual number of attachments this week.” He goes on to say that in the past 24 hours alone you had sent out six PDFs, all the same size, 567 KB. “Want to tell me what’s going on?”

You lose your temper, but he’s patient and finally gets you to admit that you’d been responding to e-mails asking for a copy of your latest paper. Someone mentioned it on a blog. It’s a good thing! The university should be happy about the publicity. The functionary sighs and reminds you that you don’t own the copyright, and neither does the institution. His job to protect the university from liability, and the publishers are watching. “I’ll let it go this time, but don’t let it happen again.”

§ § §

It sounds preposterous, right? This is what Kevin Smith has called a nightmare scenario,one that doubles down with new guidelines for interlibrary loan (which in his terms are opening “a second front” of attack on education).

But this is our future if publishers prevail. We may have to adhere to a strict and highly conservative interpretation of old guidelines drawn up by – you guessed it – publishers, who back in 1976 were troubled by that disruptive new technology, the Xerox machine. If they call the shots, we will have to create a bureaucracy to enforce copyright compliance or face litigation. We will have to reserve interlibrary loan for journal articles only for rare instances and in a manner controlled by “rightsholders” – which, by design, are publishers, not the authors. Where would we get the lines to staff compliance mechanisms? And the money to pay permissions for everything we use in teaching and research, every time we use it? Out of our existing budgets. The ones that keep getting smaller.

Librarians have been Cassandras for long enough. It’s time for the rest of the academy to wake up before they have this nightmare and stop treating research as a commodity we naturally give away in exchange for personal advancement, assuming it will always be available, somehow. Otherwise, get ready for a future that will not be a hospitable place for that old-fashioned pursuit, the advancement of knowledge.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse Copyright © 2015 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.