Digital Copyright & Copywrong

See Article: Computers in Libraries 22(5), May 2002


The May installment of my Digital Librarianship column is particularly close to my heart. I wrote it in four capacities. One as a law school graduate who wrote his doctoral dissertation then a book about the Legal Protection of Software. The other as an author who did not sign away the copyright for about 70% of his 300+ columns, feature articles and conference papers. The third as an occasional  user of document delivery services. And there is a fourth capacity, that of a former library director, who feels the pain of his colleagues who have to deal with increasingly problematic questions of digital copyright to avoid “copywrongs”.


Many types of copywrongs


Copyright infringements come in various flavors, creating a  wide spectrum of copywrongs. As a starter, look at the Education domain of the Blacknet site. If it looks like Academic Info you are right. As you can see the Blacknet site has a special interest in robbery cases.


To be more appealing for advertisers Blacknet apparently needed some educational stuff, and the Academic Info directory, created, maintained and run  by a former librarian, Michael Madin seemed to be a good target . He meant this ad-free directory to be the “white pages [directory] to the academic community”. I think it is more like yellow pages;  after all, it is a classified directory, but the essence is that it is of good quality. For Blacknet the attraction must have been the very small business nature of the venture, which can hardly afford to engage in legal tanglings.


Blacknet lifted the entire  Academic Info site, added a black background, replaced the wording Academic Info with Blacknet and put  up to its site the entire directory, lock stock barrel – including the American spelling of words. This move must have meant the key for them to successful advertising. Madin, the developer of the site  complained about the action and his failed efforts to get response from the site on the PortalBuilder listserver but that was all the publicity which I saw about the case.  (Lately, I spotted some attribution to Academic Info at the bottom of some pages, so perhaps some negotiations took place)

Click here to see enlarged screen


If you look at the source code of this page, it turns out that Blacknet  may have sent a boy to do a man’s job, who forgot to replace the wording across the board,  and left Academic Info in the title metatag. This means in turn that the address will prominently show the real owner of the site. In spite of such signs some British and Canadian Web guides which managed to ignore Academic Info in the past, now include the directory attributed to Blacknet. It is not so funny.  


Seemingly less blatant and more brainy were the efforts of a Canadian company which created a competitive product, the Prestige Factor database to the Journal Citation Reports (JCR) database by building the core of its business on using (without license) millions of JCR data collected and processed by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). This farce is over, the site was shut down, and the company folded, but some libraries may have already purchased the Prestige Factor database, which seems to me the epitome of a derivative product - a clear case of copyright infringement.

You can find some interesting details about this “project” at my eXTRA web-site.


Copyright infringement disputes also erupt between well-established information companies. Large publishing houses have an armada of lawyers who take care of the legal procedures, often settling out of court. A few months ago, F-D-C Reports, Inc. settled a lawsuit against NewsEdge Corporation and IMS Health, Inc. alleging unauthorized delivery of copyrighted materials.


Given my research about the practices of document delivery services, it is of particular interest to me to see what will be the outcome of the lawsuit filed jointly by Elsevier and John Wiley & Sons, Inc. against Kessler-Hancock Information Services, Inc. for “unauthorized photocopying from the publisher’s journals for resale to service’s customers”. The rest of allegations in the lawsuit is not exactly uplifting, even if many in the information industry have known that the copyright fees paid may not always reach the legitimate copyright holder.  



This lawsuit was settled out of court between the parties (News release), but a new lawsuit was filed against Mr. Greg Wilson Kessler (News release).


This is exactly the domain of my current research. Beyond my own experience, the excellent series (Conflicted Copy Rights) by Paula Eiblum and Stephanie C. Ardito in the 1998 issues of Online painted a broad and quite displeasing picture about the copyright anomalies in document delivery services. Librarians feel the pressure because they are the intermediaries between the customers and the document delivery services most of the time.

Since 1998 the situation became worse, partly due to the increasing presence of digital delivery. Digital delivery is a good thing of course, but raises additional concerns whether the service charges a flat copyright fee (irrespective of the extent of the article), or a base fee and a per page copyright fee (royalty). My examples are mostly from Infotrieve as I panned  a relatively new document delivery service, sciBASE in Peter's Picks and Pans in Online,  and I will soon cover other services elsewhere.



Flat Copyright Fee


Flat copyright fee (royalty) may seem to be a convenient solution for users and librarians. Once you know the copyright fee of a journal, it will be the same for all the articles. The rightholder may change the royalty from one year to another, but in the examples here this does not apply, because Information Today, Inc. [ITI]  has kept the copyright fee the same for many years.

It may give you peace of mind (in one regard) when you see the same royalty for the same article in two records. You may wonder, of course, how many duplicates there are in the database of the document delivery services. The fact that the bibliographic citations are from the British Library adds an extra layer of comfort and pride. Or does it?

Not really, when you realize that one citation claims that the page range is from page 38 to 43 (6 pages), the other claims it is from p38 to 39 and on page 42 – a total of 3 pages. (The latter is the correct one).  It is a 100% difference in page numbers. Never mind, after all you are paying a flat fee, irrespective of the page numbers. But isn’t that $15 copyright fee a tad high for a 3-page column?

Click here to see the whole screenshot

Click here to see the whole screenshot


You recall that the last time you paid a $5 copyright fee for a 3-page article from CIL for this guy’s column, and your printout shows that your recollection is correct.

Click here to see the whole screenshot


You remembered that one, because then you found the same column  for free on the Website of CIL – with very legible, enlargeable  color screenshots (courtesy of Bill Spence, the excellent Webmaster of ITI). It was much more useful than the black and white copy which cost you $15.75 ($10.75 service fee + $5.00 copyright fee), obviously had no hot links, and took a few days to receive. You pledge that next time before you place an order you would check out if a piece from an ITI publication may be freely available online on the ITI site – if you have the time for it.


That new $15 copyright fee charged by Infotrieve keeps bugging you. It  makes the $10.75 service fee (which rose to $12 while I was working on this piece) look better relative to the total expense, but otherwise it does not seem to be reasonable.  So you decide to check around. You will find that the publisher has been charging a $3.50 base fee and a $0.50 per page fee for many years as shown by the 1998 and 2002 colophons.


You go on to check what the British Library says about the copyright fee. It’s £5.27 (~$7.50), which is 50% more than what the publisher would charge you, still only half of what Infotrieve charges.

 Uncover gets the copyright fee almost right for this article, it charges $4.50 article fee on top of a flat delivery fee of $11.00. Actually, you get a little discount here, as the copyright fee should be $5.00 for a 3-page article (or $4.00 if Uncover uses the so-called TRS (Transaction Reporting System) royalty option - available for docuement delivery services.

You probably don’t check sciBASE because you may have read my Picks and Pans column in Online about the absurd copyright fees the company charges, and then my rebuttal in eXTRA  in response to the letter to the editor by the company’s vice president, so by now you know who’s inaccurate. The good news is that after this exchange sciBASE stopped its direct document delivery service of articles.

The Infotrieve copyright fee, however, remains a mystery, and spoils the joy of the flat royalty. 



Page based copyright fee


Now that the flat copyright fee did not bring the sigh of relief, let’s look at the page based  copyright fee which applies to many journals. I looked up some of my articles published in Information Today.

I had a good start with the one page review of the service. While the service fee went up to $12 from $10.75 in April, the copyright fee is $4.30 – perfectly in tune with what the publisher charges. $3.50 base fee + $0.50 page fee. What’s the 30 cents extra? It is legitimate, It is the service fee you pay through Infotrieve to the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC). 

Sure, Infotrieve could have been more generous and cover that 30 cents in the increased service fee. Then again, it certainly helps to pay  for the expensive color ads on the back covers and inside spreads of trade journals of our profession.  


The joy over the page-based copyright fee will be short-lived as soon as you realize that the bibliographic records in Infotrieve  often claim longer page spans than the articles cover. Now, under the per-page fee scheme this really hurts.

Take the example when a 2-page column becomes a 6-page column as is the case with the piece about Database Synergy. ProQuest correctly identifies it as 2 pages, but Infotrieve claims that it is 6 pages, ranging from p. 34 to 39 – and sets the royalty fee accordingly to $6.80 ($3.50 + $3.00 + $0.30).


But wait, maybe you have a better deal. There  is also a 4 page version in Infotrieve. If you are lucky you see first that version and pay only $5.80 royalty. The $1 difference is not a big deal, but a dollar here, and a dollar there can quickly add up with the transaction volume that Infotrieve has. Thinking of it again, Infotrieve really should have covered that $0.30 CCC fee in its increased service fee.


But wait again, you may have an even better deal. If you click on the 6-page version to see the more detailed pre-order record, you see a 2-page version with the correct copyright fee of $4.80. What gives?

Well, I sent a fax to Infotrieve which sent me a small part of the real article and 2 unrelated pages. I demanded the charge to be reversed on my credit card for this unservice. I also expressed my dismay and asked for the CEO’s e-mail.

To Infotrieve’s credit my fax was forwarded to him, he called me the next work day, then sent an e-mail of regret over what happened and made the credit card charge reversed.

I pointed out in my e-mail that the record should be also changed, and that is what happened in the pre-order record. Apparently, in the bibliographic record the wrong page numbers were not changed.

This correct page number should be carried over also to the bibliographic short entry.


Other records that have wrong page numbers, of course, remain in the database and keep serving as the basis for calculating the copyright fee. I don’t know how pervasive these page number errors are, but it is quite discouraging that out of five columns in the sample, four records had wrong page numbers, typically 80-100% more than the articles really span. Testing on a large scale could reveal how often such errors occur in the bibliographic records. True, it does not matter for CIL articles, but would much matter for any journals which are priced on a page basis, and for  CIL as well - if  Infotrieve will switch it back to that charging scheme from the current flat fee.


All these issues also bring up the question what happens when Infotrieve tries hard to transfer the copyright to a) the publisher, or b) the Copyright Clearing Center, or c) the author. I can answer the third option quickly. I never got a check from any of the document delivery services except for a nice lump sum from Uncover in a class action suit for copyright infringement, settled out of court.

The publisher may be more lucky, albeit, it may be a tad difficult for the checks to reach my publisher when they are addressed to Meckler Corporation for Computers in Libraries. Meckler has sold the journal to Information Today, Inc. (then called Learned Information, Inc.) about a decade ago to focus on its other journals.


I have no happy ending for this saga.  Even the publisher with the best intention like Information Today, Inc. may not be able to do justice easily to authors who retain their copyright and license ITI to exercise certain rights. Why not? Simply because the publishers do not get itemized list with the royalty transfers even if they are sent out. This is odd in a time when every transaction is kept in databases and digital delivery becomes pervasive.

Of course, this may be Hecuba to you dear reader. As long as you paid the copyright fee you did your duty. It’s another question how much you, your patrons/clients are overcharged, and how much of the royalty gets to the authors, if at all they get royalty from the business of the document delivery services.

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