Digital Copyright Issues in Academic Publishing

By Roy Bixler
5 February 2006

As technology affects publishers of all kinds, whether the medium is video, audio or print, it is interesting to see how the publishers adapt to the changing environment. The primary challenge lies with the ease of making digital copies of works and the implications that has for the application of copyright law. Laws like the Digital Millienium Copyright Act in the US, which enforce technical restrictions on making copies, are well-known and are primarily associated with the music and film industries. However, due to the market failure of e-books, technological change has not been as quick to affect the print medium.

Nonetheless, print publishers still sell some e-books and it is increasingly common to see electronic editions of books published on CDs, DVDs or online. So it is relevant to explore what print publishers think of copyright in the digital age. Not surprisingly, the commercial print publishers hold a very similar philosophy to their counterparts in the video and audio sectors.

Commercial Publishers

In an Association of American Publishers white paper called "What Consumers Want in Digital Rights Management"0, they have the following to say about DRM: "DRM does not implement copyright. DRM is technology that establishes and enforces to varying degrees certain permissions and restrictions on access and use of content. These permissions and restrictions are not, and in the current state of technology could not be, an embodiment of copyright law." Also, in testimony before the US House Judiciary Committee on allowing unrestricted (non-DRM) Internet access to books for instructional purposes, Allen Adler of Association of American Publishers said "AAP opposed the alternative bill's proposal because its version of a revised Section 110(2) exemption would have (1) permitted the online use of entire copyrighted works in a manner that substituted for the usual purchase or acquisition of instructional materials by or for students, and (2) exposed copyrighted works to potentially market-killing risks of unauthorized reproduction and distribution on the Internet." (Adler, 2001)"1

In other words, DRM is a supplement to copyright and is a perceived necessity because it is easy to copy unrestricted digital content. The assumption is that so many consumers would rather make a free copy than pay the author or publisher for their work and that publishing in digital form would be unprofitable. However, there are duelling studies as to whether unrestricted downloads have any significant effect on sales.234

Academic Publishers

Academic publishing is a more interesting case because the market dynamic is different from commercial publishing. Academic publishing generally serves niche markets which are inherently unprofitable. The mission of academic publishing tends to focus on the dissemination of knowledge instead of on pleasing shareholders.

The relationship between academic publishers and their customers is a closer one. Oftentimes, the customer is also the author of some published work. Academics are accustomed to collaborating with each other, building on the works of others ("standing on the shoulders of the giants that came before them") and reviewing each others' works. This dynamic puts a premium on openness5 and discourages technological measures which inhibit sharing of works.

In North America, the advocacy group for academic publishers is the Association for American University Presses (AAUP). When asked whether they take any position on digital copy restrictions, AAUP's executive director Peter Givler said "As an association I don't think we could take a position on this question." On the AAUP's Web site, one finds that they consider traditional copyright law to be for the public good6 and that technologies which push the limits of the fair use doctrine like Google Print (now Google Book Search) need to be further clarified7 and tuned.

The academic publishers' views can range from agreement with their commercial counterparts to cautious acceptance of free copying. For instance, when asked about DRM, the University of Chicago Press had this to say:

The University of Chicago Press acts as an agent of its authors in its publishing programs and works to protect their intellectual property rights as the Press makes their work available to the learned community.

We believe that Mike Shatzkin and the AAP's Allan Adler speaks well on the topic of Digital Rights Management.

Michael Jensen of the National Academies Press says that they have considered the issues of DRM and have decided not to use it in their publications because they would prefer to maximise availability of their content, they do not want to lock it down and also they do not want to deal with the customer service issues that may come with DRM. Jensen also says that they have started putting books on their Web site for free reading/browsing in 1994, have more than 3,500 books online and now have a significant amount of traffic at 1.25 million hits per month. In the past, they have implemented watermarking on their downloadable PDF (Portable Document Format) files but abandoned that practice 8 months ago since they have found so few issues with online copyright infringement that it was not worth the trouble.


According to the AAUP8, university presses are subsidised and on average make about 85% of their revenues on sales. Given this, it is easy to understand why some university presses with uncertain subsidies are less enthusiastic about the idea of easily available copies which current technology enables. They can ill afford any significant loss to their already pinched revenues. But, at this point, any loss due to unrestricted digital copies is hypothetical.

There is also the Canadian model to consider, in which the government funds the lion's share of academic publishing. According to the estimates of Steve Izma of Wilfrid Laurier University Press:

Currently the Canadian government directly or indirectly funds a great deal of Canadian scholarly material:
  1. From my observations over the years about 30% of the income of the majority of Canadian-owned publishing companies (both profit and non-profit) comes directly from various levels of government (usually through arts councils, scholarly publishing committees) as grants
  2. Almost all (except for one or two notable exceptions) Canadian University Presses are significantly subsidized by their Universities through outright cash transfers or through grants-in-kind, such as free rent; most Universities see this kind of publishing as a form of promotion of the University as well as of its scholars, even if their press publishes material of wider origin. The amount of this subsidy varies widely and from year to year, depending on the income from sales, but it is not unusual to see the Press of any particular University benefitting to the equivalent of 20% to 30% of income through these sources
  3. Of the remaining actual sales income, more than half (and possibly as much as 75%) must come from either academics or students doing research or institutions like libraries -- so the income is either from government-funded organizations, employees, or from grants that academics themselves have received from government sources.

Even with all of these subsidies, the Canadian Encyclopedia says "... the university presses exist precariously. Editing and production costs are only one aspect of the problem in a country where funding, distribution and limited readership are factors never easily resolved."9

In sum

Ultimately, since it costs money to edit and produce print works, the questions are about business models. At the same time, the customers of academic works value the ability of free access to print works and would frown on any technological restrictions which make this more difficult. If free copying is available, will current business models still work? If not, can an alternate model compatible with free copying be found? If DRM is inevitable, then can it at least be made minimally intrusive and user-friendly?10 As these questions are still unresolved, this is certainly a new era for academic publishing.

About the author: Roy Bixler has worked at the University of Chicago Press from 1994 to 2006 as a programmer and system administrator. During that time, he has spoken about technical issues at AAUP conferences and generally acquired a knowledge and appreciation of the world of academic publishing.

Slowinski, F. Hill (2003 March). What Consumers Want in Digital Rights Management (DRM): Making Content as Widely Available as Possible In Ways that Satisfy Consumer Preferences
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Adler, A. (2001, June 27). Statement of Allan R. Adler vice president for legal and governmental affairs Association of American Publishers before the Subcommittee on courts, the Internet and intellectual property House Judiciary Committee concerning S.487 "The Technology, Education And Copyright Harmonization Act Of 2001."
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Liebowitz, Stan J. (2005 March) File Sharing: Creative Destruction or just Plain Destruction
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Oberholzer, Felix and Strumpf, Koleman (2004 March). The Effect of File Sharing on Record Sales
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Boorstin, Eric S. (2004 April 7). Music Sales in the Age of File Sharing
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McGreal, Rory (2004 November). Stealing the Goose: Copyright and Learning
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Givler, Peter (2003 February 9). Copyright: It's for the public good (originally appeared in The Chronicle Review)
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AAUP. Google Book Search, née Google Print
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AAUP. Some University Press Facts
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Canadian Encylopedia. University Presses.
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Jones, Pamela (2005 June 27). Grokster Decision - as Text
"Further, copyright holders may develop new technological devices that will help curb unlawful infringement. Some new technology, called "digital `watermarking' " and "digital fingerprint[ing]," can encode within the file information about the author and the copyright scope and date, which "fingerprints" can help to expose infringers."
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