Panel Ponders Author Rights in Digital Age

By Ben Hinshaw - On March 9, 2016, the Innovating Communication in Scholarship project (ICIS) hosted a cross-disciplinary panel entitled "Authorship and the Promises of Digital Dissemination." The discussion, which featured an array of scholars, librarians, archivists and authors, as well as representatives of Authors Alliance, explored the challenges faced by writers seeking to maximize the reach of their work—and protect it—in the digital age.

Mario Biagioli, professor of law and science and technology studies at UC Davis, began by highlighting the common interests shared by ICIS and Authors Alliance. Both, he said, are deeply engaged with the changes being wrought on publishing (academic and otherwise) by the emergence of open access movements.

Pam Samuelson, professor of law and information at UC Berkeley, described the primary goals of Authors Alliance (of which she is a director) as “to empower authors to take charge of their copyrights, and to help them make their work more widely available.” This often involves assisting authors with rights reversion—a process through which they can regain the copyright to works neglected by their original publishers—and generally helping them look beyond traditional publishing routes to ensure a long-term relationship with their work.

Piracy and predictability

Central to the discussion—led by University Librarian Mackenzie Smith—were the potential consequences of open access publishing. Smith described the frustrations experienced by libraries seeking permission to digitize works, the rights to which are held by deceased authors. Meanwhile, Michael Wolfe, executive director of Authors Alliance, noted that many authors do not consider full public open access to be satisfactory, although the Creative Commons model can help them maintain control of their work down the line.

Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars Trilogy and other works of science fiction, confirmed Wolfe’s sentiment. “What happens to the professional writer if everything is open and free?” he asked. Open access, he added, “used to be called piracy.” In Robinson’s opinion, it is imperative that authors retain their own copyrights. Agreeing, Pam Samuelson noted that many authors nonetheless continue to give them away far too easily.

Empowering individual authors is important, suggested Madhavi Sunder—Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law at UC Davis and author of From Goods to Good Life: Intellectual Property and Global Justice—but leaving the future of access to their personal desires is risky. Does such a strategy serve the public as it should? Consistency and predictability for libraries and library users must be the goal, she added.


As the discussion was opened up to include members of the audience, it was suggested that, within five years, academic authors will be paying fees to university presses to ensure their books are granted open access status. In response, it was pointed out that the University of California Press has already begun to adopt this model. Mackenzie Smith then noted that libraries are beginning to set aside funds expressly to help authors make such payments, since physical books that are also “open access” represent “a win-win for libraries.” This process represents an experiment, she added—part of a “tricky transition.”

In the panel’s closing stages, it was claimed that the open access movement has so far been a “half-revolution”—one perhaps characterized more by evangelism than progress. As issues such as the right to be forgotten become more prominent, achieving a fully “open access” world will continue to prove challenging—a situation that many professional writers may applaud.

The other panelists were: Stephanie Boluk (Assistant Professor, English), Jonathan Eisen (Professor, Evolution & Ecology and Medical Microbiology & Immunology), Alexandra Lippman (Postdoctoral Scholar, Science and Technology Studies) and Rick Prelinger (Director, Prelinger Archive).

Learn more about the Innovating Communication in Scholarship (ICIS) project and Authors Alliance.