Work for Hire and Oxford University Press

by Jonathan Sterne on January 24, 2012

Steven Shaviro recently posted about pulling out of an Oxford University Press collection because they wanted to define his contribution as “work for hire.” This is objectionable for lots of reasons, but in particular because academics should retain the right to be associated with the ideas we produce, and so long as we’re above board about it, we should be allowed to develop those ideas and republish them in other forms (for instance, as part of a monograph).

I recently had two go-arounds with OUP for handbooks. In both cases, I felt a personal obligation to the editors such that I didn’t want to pull out. I also had the same acquisitions editor for both volumes, so it was at least not two different fights. We had a lot of email back and forth. I tried everything. I started with the SPARC authors’ addendum and then got to the point of refusing the $200 “fee” — it can’t be work for hire if they don’t pay me. Unfortunately, that didn’t fly even though in monetary terms, $200 is a joke: amortize that over the hours required to write an essay and you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, I think a good portion of my salary is for me to do research and write, so I’m not going to sweat $200.

I finally got a clause added stating:

Notwithstanding the foregoing, provided that full acknowledgment of the Volume (including bibliographic details) is given and that such use does not affect prejudicially the sales or other exploitation by the Publisher of the Volume, the Publisher will not object to use by the Author of parts (but not the whole) of his contribution to the Volume in reworked form as the basis for articles in professional journals, conference papers, training materials, newsletters and similar materials, as well as for chapters in books by the Author.

This was a compromise with the press for those two cases, though I don’t think I would do it again (this, of course, assumes I have the privilege to be able to publish in lots of places–not everyone does). Amusingly, the one of the two articles that used some material that will appear in the mp3 book is in a collection that was delayed (as edited volumes often are), meaning that it is unlikely that I can provide full bibliographic acknowledgment in the mp3 book, and the OUP will technically be the republication even though it’s an earlier version.

And yes, I got the $200 for the collection that’s out. For the one that’s not out, I haven’t seen the money yet. I am sure it will come eventually, and though I am somewhat moved to not cash it, there’s also something odd about having a $200 check in your drawer. If I am not going to use the money, there are many others who could.

What Is To Be Done

The solution here seems pretty simple, which is one I’ve taken to. Ask to see the contract up front and negotiate the terms before you agree to write (I haven’t done that in cases where I already know what the press’ contracts look like). Refuse to publish with presses that have contracts like this. I won’t put myself in this position again, and if I’m going to let down my friends, it’s better and less melodramatic to simply say I can’t do it on the front end.

And, as always, I refer you to Ted Striphas’ excellent Acknowledged Goods essay, which lays out the stakes in journal publishing, but is relevant for book publishing as well.  Click here for the official but padlocked version (you can read it if your school has a subscription to the journal) or here for the free version.

Tyler Bickford January 25, 2012 at 11:13 am

In addition to the same reworking clause, I got them to add some language approximating moral rights in the “Use of Contributor’s Name” section:

It is hereby acknowledged and agreed that such likeness and biographical information shall be subject to the Contributor’s approval, such approval not to be unreasonably conditioned, withheld or delayed. It is further acknowledged and agreed that the Contribution shall be attributed to the Contributor in each instance.

Similarly after extended back-and-forth. The main substantive difference with work-for-hire I’m concerned about is that under “mere” copyright transfer ownership reverts back to the author after 30-odd years, but work-for-hire is forever.

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