The rights and permissions disaster

I want to report on my experience with getting the rights for a collection of the most important papers by Tilman Höhle, which I am coediting with Marga Reis and Frank Richter and which will appear in the Classics in Linguistics series by Language Science Press. Working on this volume is really fun, except one part: getting the rights to republish Tilman Höhle’s work. This part of the work was the largest one, extremely time consuming, extremely inefficient and extremely annoying. I want to explain why in a little more detail. Tilman Höhle published several very influential papers in the 80ies and 90ies. He published with Akademie-Verlag, Benjamins, CSLI Publications, Foris, Kluwer, Niemeyer, Stauffenburg, and Westdeutscher Verlag. With the exception of Benjamins, CSLI Publications and Stauffenburg all these publishers were bought by De Gruyter or Springer. An overview of this is presented in the following table.

original publisher now owned by
Akademie-Verlag De Gruyter
CSLI Publications
Foris De Gruyter
Kluwer Springer
Niemeyer De Gruyter
Westdeutscher Verlag Springer
Concentration in the publishing sector

The contracts that we signed in the 80ies and 90ies all included a passage saying that authors have the right to use their articles in collections of their own work or in books authored or coauthored by them. So we expected that it would not be a problem to get the permissions to put together a collection of Tilman Höhle’s most important papers. I wrote emails to the remaining publishers and got fast positive responses by CSLI Publications and by Brigitte Narr from Stauffenburg. I called Benjamins, who were a bit delayed due to the holiday season, but reacted quickly after my call. We got permission to use the papers we wanted to use with a Creative Commons CC-BY license and free of charge.

The interaction with the remaining two publishers was less pleasant. I first thought that Springer was easy, since they have a web interface for Rights & Permissions and this web interface grants you the right to use articles in other compilations and so on provided you are the author. However, the automatically generated permission letters explicitly exclude online publications without password protection and refer authors to Springer’s Rights & Permissions department for such usage.

I sent several emails to Springer and got impersonal replies without a name of the sender. I called several times and I guess I interacted with three or four employees of the rights & permissions section. The answer I got was: We cannot grant you the right to put copyrighted material on a webpage. I explained in emails and during phone calls that we did not want to upload the original articles into repositories or onto any other webpage but that we wanted to edit, reformat, and publish the papers by Tilman Höhle in a collection of his work, something that is usual and was possible up to the recent changes in the publishing world. For one paper, it turned out that the rights of the papers in the relevant publication reverted back to the authors, so we can use Verum focus in the intended way. But for Reconstruction and coordination I got the repeated reply that there is no way to use this paper in publications that are available online without a paywall. This would just not get into my head. Springer sells the open access option (CC-BY) to authors of new articles for $3.000/2.200€+VAT, but there is no way to turn a book chapter from 1991 into open access? Not even for money? The argument was: it would be unfair to readers who buy the complete book. What? I really love this appeal to fair play! What about the readers of journals that appear in print and online? Is their subscription fee of the print version lowered when the journal contains papers whose authors paid to have their content open access?

My conclusion from this was that Springer is not just a greedy company with a profit rate of more than 35 %, Springer is really an obstacle for science, their interests are fundamentally different from ours. So, I wrote a letter to Jolanda Vogt, who is responsible for linguistics at Springer, and Susanne Wurmbrand, who is the editor of the Journal of Comparative Germanic Linguistics, and informed them that I find Springer’s policy regarding rights unbelievable and that I would stop working for Springer immediately (I am in the board of JCGL and do a lot of reviewing for NLLT, Journal of Germanic Linguistics and Research on Language and Computation). Ms. Vogt contacted Rights & Permissions and we then got a quick reply giving us the permission to use the paper in an open access publication and with 100 printed copies (which is what we estimated when we filled in the first permissions form).

I was happy, but when reading the fine print, we discovered that the rights were not sufficient. What is needed for open access as we understand it at Language Science Press is a Creative Commons CC-BY license (Shieber, 2012). There are extensions of this license by NC and ND components. NC means that commercial use is not allowed without special permission and ND stands for no derivatives and means that third parties may not produce other compilations that include work under this license. In order to be able to print books via Print on Demand services, we have to have the right to sublicense the use of a book to a commercial enterprise. This would be made impossible by the NC clause. The same is true for uploading books on platforms like Google Books. Since Google is a commercial enterprise, we cannot sublicence our books to them if we do not have the permissions of the rights holders.

So, I went into the next round of emailing. The result now is that the Springer paper will be published under a CC-BY-NC-ND license and that we have the right to sublicnese for PoD for 100 books.

The interaction with De Gruyter was a little more pleasant, but rather chaotic. We got the offer to buy the right to republish as open access right away and the prices were … shocking. After all we are talking about papers from the 80ies and 90ies. Nobody will buy these books anymore. Contracts from Niemeyer stated that the copyrights return to the author once the work goes out of print. Nowadays nothing goes out of print since we have print on demand, but nobody will buy these books either. (The conference volume in which Höhle 1986 appeared is now sold for 119,95€ / $168.00, which definitely prevents interested readers from buying it.) The only commercial value of such old papers is bundled content and this is what the bigger commercial publishers are selling. (Höhle, 1986 is not even available as PDF from De Gruyter. The book is not listed in the directory of deliverable books and hence not available in normal bookstores. The content is simply blocked by De Gruyter until somebody pays for digitization.) After several rounds of emailing and a request to Anke Beck, the CEO of De Gryuter, we arrived at a CC-BY-NC-ND license for six papers for 1.273€ in total and De Gruyter stated that they explicitly want to exclude aggregation of text material. The negotiation process and its results are summarized in the following table. My mail folder on the rights issue contains 76 emails.

publisher email calls result price
Benjamins 1 1 CC-BY 0€
De Gruyter 15 3 CC-BY-NC-ND + Print for 500 books 1.273,30€
CSLI Publications 1 0 CC-BY 0€
Springer 12 3 CC-BY-NC-ND + Print for 100 books 0€
Stauffenburg 1 0 CC-BY 0€
Interaction with publishers and results

In hindsight I regret that I did not document the time that it took me to do all these negotiations, inform my co-editors and Language Science Press staff, discuss things and react again. The payment did not work smothely since it was individual bills for the individual papers. Some of them got stuck in the university system, which caused letters from De Gruyter and further inhouse and external emails. I am sure that the negotiations and the money transfer process wasted at least the same amount of time at the other side (Springer, De Gruyter). This is highly inefficient. The public sector pays for these publishing houses. We pay the rights and permissions departments of the publishers. This is part of the book prices that libraries and individual researchers pay. In a world of true open access all this would be unnecessary.

Due to the restrictive NC-ND license we cannot distribute all papers in the same way. We think that this is a pity and it ruins the book. We decided to publish the book nevertheless and put blank pages into versions of the book, for which we did not get the permissions we would need. So for instance, the De Gruyter and Springer papers will not be on Google Books. From the 101st printed copy onwards, the printed versions of this book will not contain Reconstruction and coordination, but blank pages with just the URL to the online version of this book. From the 500th copy onwards all De Gruyter papers will be missing.

So, the conclusion and the advice to all researchers is: do not give your copyright away. Just don’t! Commercial publishers will publish your paper anyway. Or even better, publish with true open access publishers that license the material under a CC-BY license.

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