(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Publish)

First things first, here’s a biographical essay about Kool Herc* I wrote (almost 3 years ago!). I don’t have a good excuse for posting it so late, but I do have a good reason for being able to post it on my site at all: because I made sure I could.

In other words, when I was sent the bullshit boilerplate contract from Greenwood insisting that they retain exclusive rights over my work, in all forms, in perpetuity, I asked for a better one. In particular, I wanted to reserve the right to republish the piece myself, at least on this humble website. You’d think that would be standard practice by now, and I’m happy to note that it’s becoming more and more common. But the cutthroat world of copyright — as mediated by that subspecies of homo sapiens we call lawyers** — is so completely screwed up that the norm is for each party to demand far more than is reasonable.

Steven Shaviro was kvetching about this last year, and he recently reported that, b/c of his refusal to give in to “ridiculously harsh contract terms,” he’s been able to republish the piece in question well before the 5 years (!) they initially wanted him to wait.

As someone deeply concerned with the enclosures of copyright — and one who has attended rather closely to its effects on music production — I tend to push for my own rights as an author (or more precisely, to resist ceding my rights to others; whenever possible I license my works so that others can remix them). Sometimes I may push too hard (though I don’t think so), as when I amended a boilerplate contract from The Fader which they made me re-amend (which may or may not be the reason J Shep stopped returning my emails).

In the last year, as certain institutions with the power to do so have pushed for open access, a number of (young) scholars have spoken out about the ridiculousness of lockbox journals/publishers. Of course, it’s not always so easy to resist. There are pressures to publish in certain places if one wants to raise one’s profile and be taken seriously in one’s field. Hence, in response to danah boyd’s vow never again to publish in a place the public cannot access, Anne Galloway said “I think not.” If you’re not in the academic publishing game, you might be under the assumption that authors and editors actually make money putting together journal issues. It’s a total racket, and it has to change.

It’s true that for those of us — like me, Steven, Anne, etc. — who are savvy/brave/attentive enough to ask, it’s possible to reserve certain rights fairly easily. The problem as I see it, though, is the systemic attempt by publishers to automatically (and often fairly quietly — in the small print) divest authors of some rather basic rights. The answer/solution, I suppose, is to increase awareness of the various strategies and tactics one can adopt to push against the status quo, including advocating for oneself and embracing open forms/forums for publishing. It’s my hope that individual authors (or better, collectives) will be able to change the way things are done in the publishing world thanks to emerging technologies and ethics of sharing.

It’s easy, especially as a young academic, to become bitter over the standard process of farming out knowledge production to these vicious middlemen. It took me several weeks to research and write that Kool Herc essay, and all I got out of it was this lousy $175 reference work that no one is going to read. So you can imagine my reaction when I was approached to write another 10,000 word essay for $0 (and no rights) for Greenwood. I replied to the graduate student editing the volume (on “Hip-hop Around the World”) — and the open CC list of hip-hop scholars he targeted — with the following:

Dear All,

At a glance, a project like this seems really exciting and promising, but having participated in the first of Greenwood’s hip-hop reference works, I have serious reservations. For one, a 10,000 word essay is no small labor, and yet Greenwood offers no kind of fair compensation for one’s work, aside from a copy of the rather glossy books that they then sell to libraries for $175 or so. (I realize that that’s par for the course in academic publishing, but it’s pretty disgusting and disappointing, and frankly, I’m tired of it.) Moreover, one has to ask for a special contract in order to retain one’s copyright over the essays and reserve the rights to republish. I requested a non-exclusive contract for my contribution and I’m happy to report that they sent one out right away, but I find it pernicious that their default agreement is so greedy.

For two, because of the books’ pricing and style and outreach, they will hardly be read by anyone, which is really unfortunate given the (world)wide appeal of these subjects and, presumably, the quality of the contributions. I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade here — especially the editors, who commit a lot of time and energy into making these interesting and useful and relevant — but I really have to question the premise of such projects. Ultimately, they seem to result in little more than making money for Greenwood and exploiting academics’ (and especially grad students’) labor. I refuse to participate in another one.

I’d rather see a group blog, or wiki, devoted to fleshing this stuff out, sharing it with the world, and inviting feedback. But I guess that doesn’t look as impressive on a CV. I hope that one day, soon, it will.

In Solidarity,

And I’m pleased to report that several of the people on the list (including some of the hip-hop scholars I most admire) responded to me, off-list, to say how much they agreed. Here are a few —

right on, wayne.

this is a private note back to you. i agree with all of your points. i’ve honestly never thought highly of greenwood (or their parent, praeger, which is essentially academic self-publishing without the ‘self’ represented that much). but you also point to the university press copyright regime, which has been a particular sore point with me for years. i’ve lost friends over this, but i feel like they cheapen our work and privatize info in the name of some lofty academic goal. it’s all bullshit. in any case, i don’t know the editors or how they got all of our email addys, but i hope your letter at least gave them pause. it’s early in the project, and your intervention might give them the juice they need to get a better contract.

Thanks for the headsup, man. I know exactly what you mean. I just came out with a co-edited reader and 2 days before the book party find out that the book sells for $180. Outrageous. Who the f… is gonna buy a book at that price. I sure wouldn’t. I told people to steal it, abbie hoffman-style.
guess we gotta put out our own stuff, eh?

I’m with you on this. thanks for writing what was in in my mind.

That was a nice bit of affirmation, especially from these folks (who shall remain anonymous).

As for “Hip-hop Around the World,” I’d rather save my 10,000 words for my own project — or the kind of collective endeavor I suggested in my response. As some readers may know, I taught a course on the “Global Hip-hop” last spring. I plan to post the syllabus here soon. I don’t have to ask anyone permission to do that.

Or to blog.

Thank g0d.

* About the Herc essay: despite my lingering bitterness, it was a fine opportunity for me to retell the story of hip-hop, to a general audience, through the lens of a Jamaican immigrant — to try to sort some things out about how Herc transmuted soundsystem stylee into something his Bronx peers could get down to. So I’m thankful for that. And I’m glad to be able to share it with you. (Again, it’s here.) In an attempt to piece things together, I combed every resource I could find: hip-hop (oral) histories, back issues of The Source, and, of course, the internet. I have to say, however, that above all, I owe a HUGE debt to Jeff Chang, in particular the chapter on Herc in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, which has informed so much of my own research on the relationship between reggae and hip-hop. Nuff props to Jeff, and to Herc. Rock rock on…

** I’m related to several lawyers (more than I’d like, really), so I reserve the right (heh) to josh like this.