Validity of copyrights

Although I do not expect a full legal opinion on this, I would like the impression of someone who knows something about copyright law.

Here is the situation. In the 1960s (in fact, at any time up to the 80s when there was a new US copyright law), the way you published a scientific article was to send it off the editor of a journal and in the fullness of time, if it was accepted for publication, it was published. You did not normally put any copyright notice on it and the publisher would usually put a blanket copyright on the issue, not asking anyone’s permission and not receiving any.

If you wanted to have it reprinted, you asked the publisher for permission and he generally granted it. One publisher of a work that I was involved in reprinting electronically wrote that they had never reserved the electronic rights and we were free to go ahead. (I should mention that I am technical editor of a free electronic journal that also does reprints. Recently the American author of a paper from the 60s asked us to reprint it. It turned out that the journal, originally published by an, I think, Italian society, had in the meantime been sold to Blackwell’s a British publisher. When we wrote to ask them permission, we were told that it would cost GBP 18/page, which comes to the order of $1000. Since we have no revenue, this is impossible. Can they really suppress a scientific publication in that way?

IANAL, but it seems to me that the current owner of the copyright has the right to charge whatever he wants for the use of his property. The fact that it is now possible to separate print from electronic rights doesn’t, IMHO, provide any legitimate basis to claim that the copyright holder somehow doesn’t hold rights that weren’t conceived of when the work was copyrighted.

Is the new owner aware that the original author wants to reprint the article, and have you tried negotiating on the price? Just because they asked for £18/page doesn’t mean they won’t accept less.

Not being able to post an electronic copy is not at all the same thing as repression. I wish Internet people would stop talking this way.

However, the issue of whether electronic rights were included with older contracts that didn’t mention them is a huge and important issue in modern copyright law. In the U.S. the case of Random House v. RosettaBooks seems to have established that authors control these rights unless they have explicitly signed them away.

Your problem is that with an Italian journal sold to a British publisher, this case probably will revolve around EU copyright law, which is not at all the same thing.

You should try negotiation first, of course. That often works. Beyond that you’d have to establish that the British firm did not have the legal right to electronic uses of their journals and only a lawsuit is likely to accomplish that.