Today’s public policy debates frame copyright policy solely in terms of a “trade off” between the benefits of incentivizing new works and the social deadweight losses imposed by the access restrictions imposed by these (temporary) “monopolies.” I recently posted to SSRN a new research paper, called How Copyright Drives Innovation in Scholarly Publishing, explaining that this is a fundamental mistake that has distorted the policy debates about scholarly publishing.

This policy mistake is important because it has lead commentators and decision-makers to dismiss as irrelevant to copyright policy the investments by scholarly publishers of $100s of millions in creating innovative distribution mechanisms in our new digital world. These substantial sunk costs are in addition to the $100s of millions expended annually by publishers in creating, publishing and maintaining reliable, high-quality, standardized articles distributed each year in a wide-ranging variety of academic disciplines and fields of research. The articles now number in the millions themselves; in 2009, for instance, over 2,000 publishers issued almost 1.5 million articles just in the scientific, technical and medical fields, exclusive of the humanities and social sciences.

The mistaken incentive-to-invent conventional wisdom in copyright policy is further compounded by widespread misinformation today about the allegedly “zero cost” of digital publication. As a result, many people are simply unaware of the substantial investments in infrastructure, skilled labor and other resources required to create, publish and maintain scholarly articles on the Internet and in other digital platforms.

This is not merely a so-called “academic debate” about copyright policy and publishing.

The policy distortion caused by the narrow, reductionist incentive-to-create conventional wisdom, when combined with the misinformation about the economics of digital business models, has been spurring calls for “open access” mandates for scholarly research, such as at the National Institute of Health and in recently proposed legislation (FASTR Act) and in other proposed regulations. This policy distortion even influenced Justice Breyer’s opinion in the recent decision in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons (U.S. Supreme Court, March 19, 2013), as he blithely dismissed commercial incentivizes as being irrelevant to fundamental copyright policy. These legal initiatives and the Kirtsaeng decision are motivated in various ways by the incentive-to-create conventional wisdom, by the misunderstanding of the economics of scholarly publishing, and by anti-copyright rhetoric on both the left and right, all of which has become more pervasive in recent years.

But, as I explain in my paper, courts and commentators have long recognized that incentivizing authors to produce new works is not the sole justification for copyright—copyright also incentivizes intermediaries like scholarly publishers to invest in and create innovative legal and market mechanisms for publishing and distributing articles that report on scholarly research. These two policies—the incentive to create and the incentive to commercialize—are interrelated, as both are necessary in justifying how copyright law secures the dynamic innovation that makes possible the “progress of science.” In short, if the law does not secure the fruits of labors of publishers who create legal and market mechanisms for disseminating works, then authors’ labors will go unrewarded as well.

As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor famously observed in the 1984 decision in Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises: “In our haste to disseminate news, it should not be forgotten the Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression. By establishing a marketable right to the use of one’s expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate ideas.” Thus, in Harper & Row, the Supreme Court reached the uncontroversial conclusion that copyright secures the fruits of productive labors “where an author and publisher have invested extensive resources in creating an original work.” (emphases added)

This concern with commercial incentives in copyright law is not just theory; in fact, it is most salient in scholarly publishing because researchers are not motivated by the pecuniary benefits offered to authors in conventional publishing contexts. As a result of the policy distortion caused by the incentive-to-create conventional wisdom, some academics and scholars now view scholarly publishing by commercial firms who own the copyrights in the articles as “a form of censorship.” Yet, as courts have observed: “It is not surprising that [scholarly] authors favor liberal photocopying . . . . But the authors have not risked their capital to achieve dissemination. The publishers have.” As economics professor Mark McCabe observed (somewhat sardonically) in a research paper released last year for the National Academy of Sciences: he and his fellow academic “economists knew the value of their journals, but not their prices.”

The widespread ignorance among the public, academics and commentators about the economics of scholarly publishing in the Internet age is quite profound relative to the actual numbers.  Based on interviews with six different scholarly publishers—Reed Elsevier, Wiley, SAGE, the New England Journal of Medicine, the American Chemical Society, and the American Institute of Physics—my research paper details for the first time ever in a publication and at great length the necessary transaction costs incurred by any successful publishing enterprise in the Internet age.  To take but one small example from my research paper: Reed Elsevier began developing its online publishing platform in 1995, a scant two years after the advent of the World Wide Web, and its sunk costs in creating this first publishing platform and then digitally archiving its previously published content was over $75 million. Other scholarly publishers report similarly high costs in both absolute and relative terms.

Given the widespread misunderstandings of the economics of Internet-based business models, it bears noting that such high costs are not unique to scholarly publishers.  Microsoft reportedly spent $10 billion developing Windows Vista before it sold a single copy, of which it ultimately did not sell many at all. Google regularly invests $100s of millions, such as $890 million in the first quarter of 2011, in upgrading its data centers.  It is somewhat surprising that such things still have to be pointed out a scant decade after the bursting of the bubble, a bubble precipitated by exactly the same mistaken view that businesses have somehow been “liberated” from the economic realities of cost by the Internet.

Just as with the extensive infrastructure and staffing costs, the actual costs incurred by publishers in operating the peer review system for their scholarly journals are also widely misunderstood.  Individual publishers now receive hundreds of thousands—the large scholarly publisher, Reed Elsevier, receives more than one million—manuscripts per year. Reed Elsevier’s annual budget for operating its peer review system is over $100 million, which reflects the full scope of staffing, infrastructure, and other transaction costs inherent in operating a quality-control system that rejects 65% of the submitted manuscripts. Reed Elsevier’s budget for its peer review system is consistent with industry-wide studies that have reported that the peer review system costs approximately $2.9 billion annually in operation costs (translating into dollars the British £1.9 billion pounds reported in the study). For those articles accepted for publication, there are additional, extensive production costs, and then there are extensive post-publication costs in updating hypertext links of citations, cyber security of the websites, and related digital issues.

In sum, many people mistakenly believe that scholarly publishers are no longer necessary because the Internet has made moot all such intermediaries of traditional brick-and-mortar economies—a viewpoint reinforced by the equally mistaken incentive-to-create conventional wisdom in the copyright policy debates today. But intermediaries like scholarly publishers face the exact same incentive problems that is universally recognized for authors by the incentive-to-create conventional wisdom: no will make the necessary investments to create a work or to distribute if the fruits of their labors are not secured to them. This basic economic fact—dynamic development of innovative distribution mechanisms require substantial investment in both people and resources—is what makes commercialization an essential feature of both copyright policy and law (and of all intellectual property doctrines).

It is for this reason that copyright law has long promoted and secured the value that academics and scholars have come to depend on in their journal articles—reliable, high-quality, standardized, networked, and accessible research that meets the differing expectations of readers in a variety of fields of scholarly research. This is the value created by the scholarly publishers. Scholarly publishers thus serve an essential function in copyright law by making the investments in and creating the innovative distribution mechanisms that fulfill the constitutional goal of copyright to advance the “progress of science.”

DISCLOSURE: The paper summarized in this blog posting was supported separately by a Leonardo Da Vinci Fellowship and by the Association of American Publishers (AAP). The author thanks Mark Schultz for very helpful comments on earlier drafts, and the AAP for providing invaluable introductions to the five scholarly publishers who shared their publishing data with him.

NOTE: Some small copy-edits were made to this blog posting.

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Adam Mossoff

Mr. Mossoff is a professor of law at Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. He is a founder and director of Academic Programs at the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property. He speaks and writes extensively on intellectual property law and policy.