Posts Tagged ‘copyright’

Free Academic Books Here!

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Informal file sharing practices amongst academics are not widely discussed. George Veletsianos blogged about how researchers use crowdsourcing on Twitter to access academic papers – an activity I also discussed a couple of years ago. The #ICanHazPDF hashtag has been created specifically to facilitate such exchanges. What I’m particularly interested in here is the role of file storage sites in the exchange of academic content, and specifically, academic e-books and their various digital formats (PDF, ePub .azw etc.)

Following the introduction of the SOPA and PIPA bills, the authorities began flexing their muscles early this year, most notably in the shutting down of the file storage service Megaupload for facilitating copyright infringement through open file sharing. Some of the most popular file storage services immediately responded by disabling their file sharing functionality, and thereby restricting downloading to the personal files of registered users. Some sites however continue to operate open sharing services, providing potential access to digital content (including academic books), most effectively sourced through third-party search engines. As with all content on these sites, specific books are routinely removed – presumably at the request of publishers or the authors themselves (see the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) – and then reposted. Cat and mouse.

For affiliated academics, there are legitimate avenues for obtaining books and other texts that are not readily available institutionally. In the UK, the Inter-Library Loan (ILL) service enables university students and staff to request any book from the British Library, though it may take several weeks or even months to receive the most sought-after books and loan periods can be very short. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see a PhD student stood for hours at a photocopier meticulously copying every page of a weighty volume of text.

I recently went to a university training session on academic copyright, in which it was specifically stated that we are expected to copy only a ‘reasonable amount’ of any text, without indicating what a reasonable amount might be, or on what ethical or legal grounds such an evaluation may be determined.

In addition, dedicated ‘e-library’ systems can provide institutional access to digital books and texts. Though typically restricted to online viewing only, some enable the printing of one or a limited number of pages at a time. Therefore, an entire book can feasibly be saved to PDF or other formats in this way, but it is a repetitive and time-consuming process.

It is perhaps assumed that the technological limitations ’embedded’ in these various methods of copying (Latour would have something clever to say at this point) are sufficient to deter wholesale copying. This might apply to busy and waged academics, who will probably just buy the book instead (or at least try and convince their department to). But what about the research student, who is (relatively speaking) time-rich and financially poor? Academic textbooks are notoriously expensive, especially niche or out-of-print titles.

Under these circumstances, we might not feel we are flouting the ‘rules’ (however ambiguous they are) by engaging in the practices described here, particularly in a climate increasingly dismissive of academic publishing hegemonies and supportive of open publishing / access agendas. But is it fair that a book that may have been written by a professor in your own department, a colleague or supervisor, or yourself for that matter, can be obtained in this way?