Ownership is about Access: Intellectual Property in the Humanities

This post is the text from a talk I gave a year ago at the former NYU Humanities Initiative (now the NYU Center for the Humanities). 


As both a lawyer and a librarian, I look at the issue of who owns what in the humanities from a dual lens of scholar and practitioner. 

Generally, when you talk about who owns what, you’re really talking about who gets to make money off of what. But in academia, and especially in the humanities, it isn’t about gaining financial capital rather scholarly capital. So really the question of ownership is a question of access; who owns what is about who controls access to what.

In fact, this question of access touches every aspect of the research lifecycle. You find others’ research, analyze it, ingest it, use it to create and publish own research, which is then made available for others to find and use and cycle begins again. At every point in the cycle, access is the key, both in what we as scholars use and what we create.

That’s my role—helping researchers navigate questions of ownership, access, and control of what they use and what they create.

Sometimes this question of access even goes beyond ownership to just a question of control, particularly in things we use.

For example, NEH and Mellon just announced a new grant program to fund the republishing of out-of-print humanities books as Creative Commons licensed open access e-books. Part of the funding is to go toward clearing the rights for these books. Ultimately, it’s not a question of owning the books but of providing access to them where previously there was none.

It’s all about achieving balance between rights of authors and access for other scholars and public.

There’s a similar consideration when thinking about the things scholars create—the goal is to achieve balance between providing access to one’s work and retaining a certain level of control over the work (in the form of copyright or other intellectual property rights).

This discussion usually takes place on the extreme ends—new scholars seeking to embargo their work in hopes of increasing the chances of getting that first monograph deal versus making work available open access to everyone at all times. The discussion can be very black and white in that sense. The real issue, however, is in the gray area in between. And the answer is a personal one for the scholar creator that should be made with all the relevant facts.

One of the things I do is help scholars gather those facts: Helping them figure out that they can negotiate the terms of a publishing agreement for their new monograph and retain rights to their work. Or making sure they know they can choose of one of various Creative Commons licenses to help make their work readily available to others while still retaining a certain amount of control.

A scholar can even choose a combination of the two, as one social science faculty member has done, by negotiating a hybrid model with a publisher—selecting traditional publishing for a fixed period of time followed by making the monograph available open access.

There are so many options, it’s important to think about them early and to think long-term. Thinking long-term about a research project can be difficult when in the midst of the project. You’re looking to get your work completed and published now; long-term access isn’t always a priority. But there are people like me and resources available in the library to help with this kind of long-term planning.

Ownership doesn’t have to be a barrier to access in the humanities; instead, it can, and should, be an asset.


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