thoughts re:open licensing & the moral rights of academics

When someone claims to have the right to something, they are by definition assuming some sort of entitlement.

In What’s so moral about the “moral rights” of copyright for academics?, Dr. Martin Eve (Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Lincoln) argues that academic authors can’t really claim that being cited and attributed is a moral right. Rather, it would be a moral act on the part of others to credit an existing work:

All of this is a long way of addressing the fact that I don’t think that demanding attribution and integrity of work is necessarily a “moral” act. For others to credit work is a moral act on their part. For an author to demand it as a “right” is an economic and individualist act that may work as an incentive.

Because open licensing critics tend to cite this right, he wants to examine the underlying philosophy. As you might have gathered from the context, his argument rests on accepting the following:

1. The “noble, ethical purpose” of research is to “contribute to epistemology and hermeneutics for the broader good.”

2. Moral rights of authors cannot claim this purpose of when its driven by the desire for what he calls–

a. symbolic economics and

b. egocentric recognition

Yes, there is a system in place that requires citation, and there’s nothing wrong with demanding to be cited if you find someone has plagiarized you–but you cannot claim it as a moral right.  The way moral rights are parsed are as economic rights:

Moral rights have an economic function in that they are designed to allow an author to accumulate a form of capital – be it social, symbolic or cultural – but that the forms are all also interchangeable with one another and, also, with material capital (money) in some ways. For instance, in the case of academics, accumulating a name in a field, via citations, can lead to a post or promotion, a real material return from an otherwise symbolic, reputational form. In this sense, the objection to derogatory treatment of one’s work is brand preservation. In this first way of thinking about moral rights, they are, actually, simply another form of economic rights.

Anyway, assuming I didn’t make any errors in representing his argument thus far, I won’t regurgitate his entire article. I think it’s an interesting one and would recommend reading it on your own. But I want to jump ahead to his last paragraph:

If, however, others want to distribute my work, improve it, translate it and so on, then I can’t see any harm in them so doing (and I feel it accords with the noble goals of academic research). Sure, I don’t want to be affiliated with work that degrades my reputation (again, personal gain), but the Creative Commons licenses do not allow others to apply endorsement and an author can ask for attribution to be removed. I also think that bad guys will find ways of re-using work for their purposes if they are determined; trying to stop them through copyright seems bound to fail. This is why I support open licensing. I wonder, though, whether different views on morality and the gift might lie behind some of the arguments around open licensing.

He doesn’t feel traditional arguments (or really the foundational basis of) for copyright and specifically against open licensing are all that great.  I don’t disagree, but I have to wonder if these critics are citing fear more than any moral right afforded by copyright. If it is fear, then I think that perhaps he might want to consider a different approach.

Additionally, it strikes me as a rather negative argument for open licensing, when I think he had the beginning of a more encouraging one: That authors should adopt open licensing and/or publish to open access journals–which I know isn’t necessarily the same thing–because it can further their reach (as research as shown, thank you, Wikipedia). And/or that open licensing encourages breaking down monolithic publishers (that Harvard can’t even afford).

Of course, if the ulterior mode is economic in nature, then I think he’s going to have a difficult time convincing these critics at all. And as he points out, the journal business can be a lucrative one for some and those philosophical arguments aren’t really going to matter. Perhaps the solution lies more in reexamining on how our humanist endeavors still depends on 20th century business practices. But that’s a topic for another time.

Anyway, I know this is really outside of what I write about (and a very rough treatment of it), but it’s always an interesting conversation when I have time! 


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