Why Copyright Web Documents?
Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College

What I mean when I copyright my web pages

My web pages are open-access documents. I hereby waive most of my rights as the copyright holder. I don't go so far as to put these works into the public domain because I wish to retain a few rights.

I give permission to copy, print, or distribute any documents from my web site, provided that:

  1. each copy makes clear that I am the document's author,
  2. no copies are altered without my express consent,
  3. no one makes a profit from these copies without my express consent, and
  4. electronic copies contain a live link back to my original and print copies not for merely personal use contain the URL of my original.

This permission does not extend to mirrors of my web pages. Do not put even unaltered copies of my pages on the internet (web, usenet, ftp, etc.) without my permission. Until we negotiate, please use a link rather than a copy.

Why put a copyright notice on the documents if I give permission to copy?

  • As noted, I wish to put some restrictions on people's freedom to copy. If push comes to shove, I'd like a legal basis to enforce my preferences and establish my authorship.
  • I write to be read. That's why I give permission to copy. But I want credit for what I've written. That's a small favor to ask, given that there's no money in this game.
  • I want to help readers, students, teachers, and scholars, not plagiarists.

I apologize for this copyright notice. I wish it were not necessary. I relied entirely on trust when I started putting documents on the web, and was forced to attach this copyright notice by hard experience with a handful of plagiarists. I hope this notice suffices to protect me so that I can return as far as possible to the attitude of trust. (However, I've had two significant plagiarism incidents since posting this notice. Neither of the two plagiarists showed any sign of having read it.)

If plagiarism continues, I will borrow Phil Greenspun's excellent idea and publicize my plagiarists in a Hall of Shame.

Since putting up this page, a university copyshop wrote me to ask permission to reproduce one of my web essays for classroom use. I know that the teacher who wanted to use the essay understood that she had my permission. The need for snail mail exchanges and signed paper forms was the copyshop's bureaucratic contribution. I give permission on this page in part to prevent just this kind of pointless delay and inconvenience for teachers. If your copyshop is equally ceremonial (perhaps under pressure from Dean Dilbert), print out this copyright page and submit it as your permission slip. Open-access literature is not only free of price barriers, but also free of permission barriers!

Short rant on copyright and "fair use"

I am a strong believer that, as it is currently interpreted, copyright law harms education. Under the "fair use" doctrine, teachers should be allowed to copy almost anything for use by their students. I would like to see this rule applied to whole journal articles and book chapters, not only to short excerpts. I would like to see it applied to whole books that are out-of-print. I wouldn't object if the rule were limited to non-profit schools and registered students.

Current law departs from the rule I recommend in three ways that particularly impede education. First, it limits "fair use" to unreasonably short excerpts. Second, for anything longer, it requires teachers to seek permission ahead of time and to wait for publishers to reply. Some publishers are quick and some are unconscionably slow. Responsible teachers must plan their incidental photocopying further in advance than their book orders. Finally, it requires teachers to pay whatever fee the publisher names or do without. Some publishers ask nothing, some charge a flat fee per page, some take the class enrollment into account, some frankly gouge. There is nothing like a "market price" in this domain. A 20-page photocopied essay can cost the student —or the school— as much as a 200-page book. These three practices deeply limit a teacher's flexibility to offer just the right fragments on a certain topic, and the ultimate losers are students.

Publishers have nevertheless insisted on these requirements allegedly in the name of authors —who deserve their royalty checks. This is pious hypocrisy. Authors make a pittance compared to publishers. Those authors who make good money are rarely the ones whose texts teachers wish to photocopy for classroom use. Authors of articles in academic journals are not paid at all (by the publisher). Authors virtually never see a penny of the fees paid by schools for permission to photocopy their works. Publishers would improve their credibility if they would honestly admit that they are out to protect their own profits, not those of authors.

I am an author, specifically an academic author. I write to be read, not to make a profit. If I ever write a profitable book, then I would like a healthy chunk of the profit, rather than let the publisher keep it all. However, if "fair use" copying of a chapter here and there diminishes the profit for both of us, but increases readership, then I would be happy.

I make this point explicit and public so that no publisher can pretend to speak for me in demanding permission or payment to reproduce my work for classroom use. If other academic writers would make similar declarations, I think we could expose the true interest of publishers, deprive them of their principal argument, change the law, and benefit education.

Not only do I give permission to copy, print, and distribute this statement, I encourage it.

For more reflections, news, and resources on what research might be like in a world in which profit didn't unduly inhibit access to literature, see my blog or newsletter.

I place a copyright notice, and a link to this page, on my academic publications, my writings for the net, my course hand-outs, my major collections of web resources (so far just those on philosophy and knots, and those related to my courses), issues of the FOS Newsletter (after 5/7/01), and a few odds and ends.

For a first-rate collection of fair use resources, including arguments similar to mine for tilting the balance of power from publishers to educators and students, see the Fair Use of Copyrighted Works from the Consortium for Educational Technology in University Systems (or CETUS).

Also sensitive to the needs of higher education in the evolution of copyright law is the Copyright Management Center at Indiana University - Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI).

The Stanford University libraries have done an excellent job collecting materials on the current state of copyright and fair use law.

Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A.
peters@earlham.edu Copyright 1998-2004, Peter Suber.

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