Sunday, September 02, 2007

Academics, copyright, and the value of ideas

During a pretty good hunk of the 1970's I was a graduate student, first at LSU, then later at Northwestern. During the period at LSU my wife and I made frequent weekend trips from Baton Rouge to Lake Charles to visit her parents.

I didn't really like her parents much. Her father was a preacher and they were both real strong Jesus types, something I'd figured out was a complete crock of shit when I was about 12. I was polite to them, it would have been very embarrassing for them to not have their son-in-law attend Sunday morning services when he was in town, so I went and sat on the front pew for display. But during the rest of the weekend I'd just whole up in the den and bury my face in a stack of magazines, avoiding as much contact as I possibly could. That's when I learned a whole bunch of worthless trivia about being a freelance writer.

My mother-in-law wrote a lot of freelance religious poetry and essays and sold quite a bit of it to various religious and spiritual magazines. She'd been subscribing to Writer's Digest Magazine for over 10 years and had a huge collection of back issues. I read them all. Most of them more than once.

So, even thought the popular press wasn't covering it, when the copyright laws changed in 1976 I had some understanding of what was going one. One of the key changes that law made was a change in what it meant for a work to be "published". Prior to 1976 copyright was created only when a work was published and had an official copyright notice affixed. That meant a writer didn't really won his work in the sense of having actual enforceable property rights without the cooperation of a publisher. The 1976 law changed that. Copyright was established as soon as a work was "fixed in a tangible medium of expression". That pretty much meant that when you wrote it you owned it and there was actual property there to be owned. You didn't have to wait for a publisher to help you establish ownership.

At the time I was a student member of a handful of academic clubs, like ORSA and TIMS (now combined as INFORMS) and ASA and AIDS (now known as DSI). I started getting stuff in the mail from them explaining that the new copyright law was going to cause the sky to begin falling if all writers of research reports didn't immediately sign away all rights to the copyrights of their written works. Civilization could not survive if copyright didn't reside in the pockets of large organizations.

That was what they all said. And a world full of pea-brained acadmics nodded their heads sagely and said, "Yep, you must be right. Where do I sign? My work has no value anyway".

It's taken over 30 years but the world of academics seems to have finially gotten some backbone and demanded the right to do what they wish with their own property. Good for them.


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