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Humanities Hobbled by Copyright Law

While scientists are pioneering exciting new modes of cooperation, humanities scholars are increasingly tripped up by an archaic copyright system. Great schools of the recent past may be doomed to an ownership pattern fractionated enough to frustrate even the most persistent assembler. Mark Bauerlein describes one editor’s struggle to put together an anthology of the “new critics:”

New Criticism will carry on only if it survives in the classroom, which is to say only if instructors have a handy anthology to assign. They’ll get it in early 2008, when Ohio University Press, in partnership with Swallow Press, issues Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism. . . .

It almost didn’t happen. And the reason why raises broad questions about how humanities fields progress. . . .

The works [in the anthology] no longer have commercial value, but many of them remain in trade-press hands. That is a problem for professors who still value them, who not only face the disregard of colleagues but also the copyright practices of publishers. . . .

[The anthology editor] asked Harcourt Inc. for permission to reprint an essay by Blackmur entitled “A Critic’s Job of Work,” and Harcourt came back with the outlandish price tag of $2,350. . . . Blackmur’s essay has no commercial value, and, as far as he knew, no for-profit press planned to reissue Blackmur’s works. The Ohio press is small and will be happy if the volume sells a few hundred copies a year. . . .

I’ve lamented this situation in a post on art history publishing, and another on writers getting “priced out of the canon.” Here’s a bottom line from Bauerlein:

[P]rofessors owe respect to the past of their own fields. It is up to them to safeguard intellectual history, to keep the pressures of money and fashion at bay. The actions of a commercial press here demonstrate that if professors take their field’s past for granted, or if they regard that past as an inferior practice, it will fade and disappear. They should realize that, for all the adversarial postures toward the market and bourgeois values, their “presentism” . . . combines all too smoothly with the bottom line of the corporations who own their forebears. . . . [P]rofessors need to stir up a counterforce. If they won’t respect their predecessors, why should anyone else?

Meanwhile, Ohio State U. P. has a DIY venture in the works that may pave the way for more affordable access to out-of-copyright works:

Frustrated by high textbook costs and hoping to make a little pocket money, the English department at Ohio State University recently put together its own two-volume textbook for lower-level British surveys. Faculty members and graduate students “edited it from the ground up,” says Richard Dutton, the department’s vice chair. A local copy business handled the publishing, and because the copyright had expired on most of the selections, permission costs were low.

The department expects to earn a couple of thousand dollars from the venture, as well as points from OSU’s administration. Should the big publishers worry about such grass-roots competition? “I can’t be sure if this is linked to our innovation, but the local bookshops are selling the Norton anthology at a discount,” Mr. Dutton reports in an e-mail message to The Chronicle. “I do know that the local representative of Longman … has been sending alarm bells to her head office.”

And, he adds, voicing a suspicion shared by many, “the secondhand market is, of course, the real reason why the big publishers have to keep revamping their offerings.”

Is frequent revision to anthology publishers what proprietary pincites are to West?