Digital Rights Management and Scholarship: What Could Go Wrong? by Kembrew McLeod

With an eye to Open Access Week, here’s a post by Transitions guest-blogger Kembrew McLeod, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. If you’d like to learn more about the issues of author’s rights and copyright discussed in this post, take a look at the University of Iowa’s Author’s Rights and Copyright library guides.

Digital Rights Management and Scholarship: What Could Go Wrong?

Kembrew McLeod

Over the past quarter-century, private companies like Blackwell and Taylor & Francis have taken control of journal publishing. Before that, scholarly societies like the National Communication Association handled this task. Professors gave away their work to journals for free, something that was often referred to as a “contribution to the field.” But today, this kind of academic gift economy is being threatened. Contrary to what free-marketeers assume, the privatization of knowledge has created more economic inefficiencies. Typically, universities pay professors not only to teach, but also to produce scholarship; it’s part of the job description. When researchers sign over their copyrights to journal conglomerates like Blackwell (again, for free), college libraries are then required to purchase the right to view those articles at inflated prices (especially compared to previous decades). In other words, schools are paying twice—to produce, and then rent—the same product. What’s more disturbing is that these publishing companies often use technological means, such as Digital Rights Management (DRM), to block unauthorized access to articles.

DRM can, for instance, restrict the number of times one can view a PDF document file or print out a hard copy. I found this out the hard way when I e-mailed a PDF of my first academic article, published in the Journal of Communication, to students in an honors thesis writing class I taught in 2007. I wanted to have a discussion with them about the process of researching this article, but I didn’t anticipate a major problem. It turned out that Blackwell, the company to which I stupidly signed away my copyrights when I was a grad student, placed DRM restrictions on the digital file. After the second student printed out a hard copy of the article from the same PDF, the rest of my class was blocked from doing so. Their computers would only allow them to print out blank sheets of paper, save for Blackwell’s copyright notice at the bottom. In other words, I was prevented from sharing my own writing with my own class, an ironic and idiotic situation that runs counter to the principles of sharing and exchange that have traditionally characterized academia. I can’t think of a more poetic expression of what is wrong with academic publishing than a blank sheet of paper where words and ideas should be. It’s also a demonstration of how over-commercialization can generate economic friction (universities paying for the products of academic labor twice) and pedagogical disasters (my derailed class discussion).


Kembrew McLeod, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa, independent documentary filmmaker, and music critic, frequently writes on intellectual property law and the influence it has on contemporary culture. His book Freedom of Expression®: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity (2nd ed., University of Minnesota Press, 2007) received the American Libraries Association Oboler Award for Best Scholarship in the Area of Intellectual Freedom. He is also the author, with Peter DiCola, of Creative License: the Law and Culture of Digital Sampling (Duke University Press, 2011) and the editor, with Rudolf Kuenzli, of Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law (Duke University Press, 2011). Follow him on twitter: