I have a suggestion for Copyright Week: Let’s ask the AAA to release their books and monographs into the public domain. After all, one of the easiest, most important, and least risky things the American Anthropological Association has ever done is to put into the public domain all of its journal articles published prior to 1964. By doing so, the AAA took our heritage as anthropologists and made it available to the world — exactly as it should be. The decision making behind this move was a little complicated (I can tell you about it later), but the decision making behind our next one doesn’t have to be. Let’s do the same for all the books and monographs the AAA hold copyright for — regardless of when they were published.
Yes, the AAA has published books, in fact over thirty of them. In fact, many members of the AAA used it as a publishing platform to publish on topics that were untimely or that university presses were not interested in. This includes important remembrances of pioneering female anthropologists like Sylvia Forman and Eleanor Leacock produced by the Association for Feminist Anthropology, as well as a series of papers on refugees, migrants, and transnationalism.
Sounds like something you’d want to check out, right? Well good luck. These monographs had very small circulation back in the day and are not on nearly as many people’s radar as they should be. It’s a real pity. There is a lovely, short festschrift for Ward Goodenough that is the best available scholarly source on his career. The copy I consulted was under lock and key in my library’s Pacific Collection, so how many other places will get hold of it? Now that Goodenough has passed away, this book is his legacy and it is unavailable. And that’s just one example of the many stories that lie behind these books.
Now, in its own way the AAA is trying to get these books back out to a public readership — by selling them. The most important ones are even being put back in print. But what is the point of bringing these titles back to print? To make money for the AAA? The AAA has a multimillion dollar budget. Is this really going to provide an appreciable source of revenue? I doubt it. Is the purpose to make these works public? In that case, the best thing to do would be to return them to the public domain. And of course if you really feel there is demand for the books, then there’s no reason to stop selling them print on demand even after you share your intellectual property rights to them with everyone else.
And what about the titles that will not go back into print, like the Goodenough festschrift? What about the books that will not come back into print? I understand that a lot of these books are clogging up the closets and drawers of the AAA. But making people pay ten bucks plus shipping and handling to clean out the AAA office in Virginia doesn’t seem fair.
So I have a better idea: release the rights for these books back into the public domain, just as you did the journal articles. You don’t even have to digitize them or anything — we’ll take care of that. And then at the next AAA in Washington bring all the back copies of these books to the book exhibit and given them away for free. You may not maximize your profit (after all the AAA has never been good at doing that), but you’ll be doing the right thing.
To pursue the other option, of commercializing our scholarly work and squeezing it for every last bit of money possible, is merely to demonstrate (again) that the AAA talks the talk on open access, but does not walk the walk. With so little money on the table, surely the AAA book series presents a perfect, low-risk opportunity for the AAA to show that it is committed to doing the right thing.