A couple of weeks ago I blogged about Gerard Jones' wonderful book called Men of Tomorrow, which is a history of comic books' "golden age." Don't worry--I'm not going to re-review it. The book did get me thinking about another type of publishing, though--academic journal publishing--and the issue of ownership rights to one's work. That's what I want to reflect on here.
As Jones shows, the comic book industry's "golden age" (roughly 1938-1960) really wasn't all that golden, especially when you look at things from the standpoint of labor. Writers and artists were largely considered to be hacks by comic book publishers, and with rare exceptions, most were paid a pittance. There were a few star writers and artists, of course--people like Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and Batman creator Bob Kane. But stars or not, comic book writers and artists were almost universally compelled to sign away the rights to their words, illustrations, and characters to the publishers who employed them. (Kane was an exception, but only because of a legal loophole.) That was a basic condition of their employment and of the system writ large. Most sufferred terribly a a result. What's all the more shameful is that comic book publishers often claimed to be making little or no money off of the writers' and artists' work when, in fact, they were profiting handsomely from it.
There seem to me some rough parallels between the "golden age" of comic books and contempory academic journal publishing. Most significant here is the issue of ownership rights to one's work. Nearly all journal publishing contracts stipulate that authors must transfer copyright and other entitlements to the publishers of our articles. We retain some rights, of course, including (thankfully) the right to be identified as the author of the work. We're also typically allowed to re-use material from our published articles in whatever books we may write, although generally our doing so requires asking for the journal publishers' permission. But otherwise, like the writers and artists of comic books' golden age, publication of our journal articles is contingent on publishers stripping us of most of the rights to our creative work.
Now, the old saw usually goes something like this: academic publishing is the pecuniary backwater of the publishing industry. Consequently, scholars must grant journal publishers exclusive rights to publish, license, and otherwise commercially exploit our work. Otherwise, the latter would be unable to cover production costs, must less hope to turn a profit.
This may be true where the journals in question are published by not-for-profit university presses. It's not the case, however, for large, for-profit journal publishers. Consider this: Taylor & Franics/Informa's revenue topped £1.1 billion GBP in 2007, an increase of 9% over the preceding year. John Wiley & Sons 2007 merger with Blackwell was a US$1 billion deal. The proposed merger of journal giants Reed Elsevier and Wolters Kluwer (now Cinven), in 1997/19998, would have been a US$9 billion deal had it gone through. These companies and others like them are hardly straped for cash.
So what might we do to improve the situation for academic authors? We might take a cue from the comic book industry. In the 1990s, star writers and illustrators such as Todd McFarlane stopped working for Marvel and DC, the industry majors, and began their own lines. Significantly, they allowed those in their emply to retain rights to the words, pictures, and characters they created. This totally transformed the industry. The new companies almost immediately siphoned off the best talent from Marvel and DC, who were then forced to offer similar deals to writers and artists in order to remain competitive.
I wonder: is something similar possible in academic journal publishing? Is there a way to allow authors to retain most rights to our published work, and perhaps even to profit directly from it? If we could create a journal like that--a successful one--might it not compel the large journal publishers to follow? These are questions I'll consider in a future blog post.