Sage Update

by Jonathan Sterne on October 28, 2006

As you may know, I have been in an email exchange with various people at Sage since receiving a copy-protected version of my own article as my “author’s copy” for my New Media and Society essay on the mp3 format. (Click here for part 1 of the story.)

This week, I heard back from Sage’s “Rights and Business Department” and their essential position was that my rights were the same with the DRM and with paper copies. They use DRM to “protect their investment” and say that my rights are to distribute it as I wish so long as it’s not in “direct commercial competition” with their distribution.

But if you look at the author’s agreement I signed for this article (here, in .pdf format), it says nothing about 25 digital copies, proprietary formats, or anything else. Here’s the relevant part of my reply to the department.

Thank you for your reply.

I went back through the contract and indeed it does not specify anything about Sage’s rights to impose DRM on me as an author, nor does it say that I will be limited to providing 25 electronic copies. In fact, provisions 3 (“to supply on an individual basis to research colleagues”) and 4 (“to make available in whole or in part on a secure network at your institution”) imply that I should be able to use an unprotected .pdf in those situations. In point of fact, my rights with the digital version are considerably fewer than with the paper version of the offprints since paper comes with no built-in limits on my use, no requirements for an operating system, and no need to consent to a third-party companies DRM scheme which may or may not be sketchy and for which I am unlikely to receive technical support should there be a problem. My rights are also fewer than those enjoyed by readers of Sage journals, who may simply download an unprotected .pdf from their universities’ library systems (assuming an institutional subscription of course).

To reinterate: as an author and a scholar, I find your company’s unilateral action to be cause for grave concern. DRM ought to be announced in notes for contributors, so that they know what they are getting into before they submit to your journals. At the very least, if you are going to limit our rights, that ought to be spelled out in the contract we sign. It is very bad faith to simply impose DRM on authors without their prior knowledge or consent.

So, what now? What should my position be on publishing again with Sage? Are they correct that my rights are essentially the same as in print format and DRM only makes their limitations more apparent? It is true that my contract did not specify in what format I would receive my author’s copy, though it certainly implies that said author’s copy would not come in a proprietary DRM-encoded format. . . . I will have to give this some more thought, but my first impulse is that this really does feel like a betrayal, and it seems like the kind of thing academic authors should fight before we cede all of our rights through law-like applications of DRM.

Gil October 28, 2006 at 1:57 am

Protecting their investment? I’m sorry, but that’s just lame. Sage certainly isn’t paying the authors of journal articles anything. They’re not paying the scholars who review submissions to those journals anything. And I’d be surprised to learn that they’re actually paying the editors of those journals anything. Journals certainly incur costs — printing, postage, advertising, etc. — but it’s ludicrous to claim that they’re protecting their investment by giving authors less rights than readers.

That said, I still think that the more effective wedge here is through journal editors. There are simply too many grad students and untenured faculty who need publications in order to get/keep jobs … and so Sage (or any other journal-publishing press) isn’t likely to feel too threatened by author boycotts, since they know they have a steady supply of authors to feed them publishable prose.

Journal editors, on the other hand, are in a much better position to control (or interrupt) the actual production of individual journals — and a press that really wants to “protect its investment” will probably be more inclined to listen to journal editors who threatens to quit their posts than they will to authors who threaten to submit their essays elsewhere.

Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t still raise as much hell as you possibly can, of course.

Nick D October 28, 2006 at 10:19 am

Hey Jon.
First of all, there’s a typo in the backtrack link above (you have the http bit twice).
Anyway, just to test: I have just managed to download the pdf myself, twice, once using VPN and going through the McGill library website, but then a second time (just to see) with VPN turned off (and it still works).

So surely you should just put this link somewhere in the blog (let’s see if this actually comes out formatted as an actual link):
http://nms.sagepub.com/current.dtl

This may be a time-limited thing (it’s the page for the current issue), but it’s available to everyone for free (at least at the moment).

Nick D October 28, 2006 at 10:23 am

PS, for those who are really lazy, the link straight to your article in pdf is here:
http://nms.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/8/5/825.pdf

This is open to the entire internet universe at the moment.
So what on earth is the point of their digital rights management software?

Ted October 28, 2006 at 6:21 pm

Jonathan,

I think Gil is right on this one: journal editors may be the primary people through whom this issue needs to be negotiated–at least, for purposes of fomenting more systemic change. Even so, though, I doubt that would settle the issue, since at least some veteran scholars are just as hungry to become journal editors, e.g., for purposes of promotion, as more junior people are to publish. In other words, I suspect many would be willing to make DRM and other types of concessions in order to get their journals off the ground, secure editorships, etc.

What’s left unexplored amid all this are the possibilities of publishing-on-demand, a technology which finally is serviceable. That is to say, I think there are ways to begin publishing scholarly work that would circumvent unnecessarily restrictive publishers altogether. That, of course, opens up the larger issue of credibility, i.e., whether one’s university would consider publications that don’t appear under the imprimatur of a university or commercial scholarly press as worthwhile. Nevertheless, it’s something worth exploring….

Keep fighting the good fight. I plan on mentioning your’s and Gil’s efforts during my talk at NCA (if you both don’t mind).

Jonathan October 29, 2006 at 11:32 am

Ted, I’ll respond more fully in a post above, but I don’t mind at all.

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