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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

When Uncle Sam (or Parliament) comes knocking

This week, three similar but unrelated articles caught my eye: one about Canadian textbooks, one about academic articles in the United Kingdom, and one about Wikipedia. All three of these articles deal with access to information that individuals utilize to learn about the world around them (granted, at vastly different levels)—but more importantly, all of these articles deal with something we don’t really like to think about: how the government influences our business models.

I took a few business classes in my undergraduate coursework, and one of the frequent topics of lecture was a discussion on the different factors that influence business decisions. These factors, obviously, include things like location, demographics—and politics. It was always a little bit difficult for me, a private citizen, to wrap my head around how the government could influence business. As a citizen, I don’t feel like the government has a lot of involvement in my day-to-day decisions. Sure, I pay taxes, but taxes aren’t a guiding factor in the decisions I make. I follow laws, but the laws don’t infringe upon my ability to pursue my normal activities.

So I was always a little dismissive of the role of government in business planning.

Oh boy, was I wrong.

Canadian copyright

In the articles I read this week, two of them were very relevant to my professional work in academic publishing; the other was relevant to my personal inclination to use Wikipedia when I don’t know something—and they all were glaring reminders of how much the government actually does have a say in the things that I do.

As someone who works with textbook publishing, the article on Canadian textbooks strikes fear to my heart: it discusses how recent Canadian copyright reform (read the legislative language here; or, for a quick fix, Wikipedia) rather ambiguously says, kind of, that copying a work for educational purposes is accepted as “fair dealing.” Unsurprisingly, textbook publishers are questioning whether they will see any real revenue from textbooks at all in the wake of this decision, expressed succinctly by Greg Nordal, CEO of Canada’s leading textbook publisher, Nelson Education:

“Why would publishers and authors invest their time and money creating new, indigenous materials in support of Canadian educational requirements, unless there is confidence of getting viable financial returns?”

UK “gold” standard

Meanwhile, the recent UK ruling on the Finch Report—which mandates that all scholarly articles are made available in “gold” Open Access journals—creates a similar future of uncertainty for journal publishers. Granted, this is supposedly limited to “publicly funded scientific research”—but then again, much research is, in some way, publicly funded. The transition here is not just playing havoc with the current publishing model, though; it’s actually a greater burden on universities and academic funders in this instance. In the ruling, the government seems to have been looking out for publishers:

One alternative favoured by many academics, called “green” open access, allows researchers to make their papers freely available online after they have been accepted by journals. It is likely this would be fatal for publishers and also Britain’s learned societies, which survive through selling journal subscriptions.

This means that the burden of funding now falls on the shoulders of university or research institute budgets—instead of paying for journal subscriptions, as they did in the past, they are now paying for the privilege to be published. Publishers are still being compensated for their part in the journal-publishing process, but at the beginning instead of the end.

In layman’s terms

While both academic publishing articles discussed the consequences of recent changes in policy, The Atlantic‘s article on Wikipedia outlines a problem in American publishing that has been growing since the advent of the Internet: our own copyright system.

I won’t say much on this article, but the gist of it is that an economics professor analyzed Wikipedia articles on baseball players from a period in which publications are now in the public domain versus baseball players from a period in which publications are still under copyright. He found that the players with public-domain data available had better-maintained, more complete, and more frequently visited sites.

Conclusion? Copyright law bars the progress of digitizing information for the general public. And in today’s remix culture (which is a new term I just learned, read about it here), that’s not a good thing.

The only things certain in life…

It will be interesting to see where these stories go in the next few months (well, maybe not Wikipedia, so much—but definitely the other two) as publishers begin to develop new strategies for what is, in many ways, a radically new playing field. Meanwhile, I’ve been soundly put in my place: government does matter.

Uncle Sam

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

About Leah Thompson

Writing and publishing professional in the Boston area.

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This entry was posted on July 25, 2012 by in Business and tagged , , , , , , , , , .

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