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The Battle for Open Access: Making More Books Cost-Free and Effectively Available

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As it currently stands, the battle for Open Access is in full swing on some fronts: no better is this exemplified than in the growing number of Open Access Journals. Still, whereas journals and articles are undergoing transition, little has been said on academic books. There’s some irony here given the successes of Project Gutenberg, Google Books and, more recently, Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad. Numerous reasons have been levelled as to why academic books seem to be bucking the trend: ranging from the exorbitant prices of production and editing expenses at book-level to reading preferences for print books over e-books.

It would be nice to hear from someone regarding the production costs, but I can tell you straightaway that reading preferences are no longer much of a problem. I almost always read journal articles and book chapters on my laptop for the primary reason of annotation.

There also lots of additional reasons why providing Open Access for e-books has more benefits than simply being free:

Access to the full text of books makes for more complete indexing. The utility of Google Books and the effort Google has put into digitizing books from libraries, even when it is unable to make the books available because of copyright, are testament to the value of indexing the full text. Long-term preservation of our cultural heritage is another public benefit of open access to e-books (Hellman, 2011: 19).

This raises the question of what does OA mean for e-Books?

Eric Hellman, in a very interesting chapter for The No Shelf Required Guide to E-book Purchasing, offers four ways of making e-Books freely available in terms of licensing (which I’ve extensively quoted from pages 20-21):

Public Domain: The public domain is more than just cost-free; it belongs to everyone. We are free to do with these works what we like. Public domain works can be copied, remixed, altered, or extended. A book pubisher can take a public domain text, print up bound volumes, and sell them in bookstores. A movie producer can create a cinematic dramatization of the public domain work; derivative works such as the movie acquire copyrights of their own and are not in the public domain. 

Free Copyrighted Content: Most content available at no cost on the Web is copyrighted, which restricts what people can do with it. Often, the content is made available using an advertising model, trading the opportunity to read and interact with content for the user’s attention to ads or links to e-commerce websites. But website users are usually not free to republish content or to e-mail the content to friends beyond the bounds of fair use. They’re bound by whatever terms and condition the website chooses to employ; if no explicit terms and conditions are stated, they still can’t copy the website’s content for other uses.

Creative Commons: Creative Commons (CC) licensing arose to expand the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share […] The different licenses available from CC are designated ewith a special mark, with added code letters that indicate the features invoked by the rights holder. For example, the Attribution-ShareAlike license is denoted by the letters CC BY-SA and the mark shown in figure 4.1. This license requires attribution as to the author of the work, and the ShareAlike features bind licensee to share any modifications or improvements.

Copyleft: The idea of copyleft is that licenses can be used to prevent someone from taking from the commons without also giving back. For example, when a book publisher adds commentary and illustrations to the text of a Shakespeare play, the resulting book is covered under copyright, and permission must be given for redistribution even though the underlying work is in the public domain. This would not be allowed by a copyleft license, which requires that any derivative works be made available under the same license. The CC ShareAlike licenses have weak copyleft; the GFDL (GNU Free Documentation License) is stronger, and even forbids the use of digital rights management (DRM). For example, it would not be legal to distribute without permission from the author a GFDL e-book to a Kindle e-reading device in the encrypted format usually used by Amazon.

In summary:

The lesson of these examples is that for an e-book to be both cost-free and effectively available, there should be an intent by the publisher to make the e-book openly available, expressed with an appropriate license, and there must be effective distribution. This combination is what makes an e-book Open Access with capital O and A (Hellman, 2011: 21).

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