I own a lot of copyrights, and here are the benefits that I derive ….

Logo of US Copyright Office

During my academic career I would write scholarly articles from time to time and see them published in the periodical literature devoted to such work. I was rarely paid in money, but the gratification of seeing my work in print, and of contributing to the scholarly conversation was more than enough compensation.

But there was an additional, legal gratification: absent an explicit contract to the contrary, copyright remains with the writer. So now I own quite a few copyrights, and here are the benefits that I derive from them:

In this age of computerization, not a few of my old articles are available in the data bases of a number of well-known publishers. So I can find much of my old work there any time I want to refer to it. I can find it there, but as I learned to my chagrin, it is generally not free. Since I never gave permission for my work to be sold by others, I approached a number of these publishers. Look, I said, this work is mine. You sell it without my permission. Tell you what, I said to a number of them, I will give you permission to keep using my work if, by way of compensation, you will give me free access to your data base.

In not a single case have any of these publishers — a very famous university press among them — agreed to my proposal. I generally get a letter back saying that the matter is being referred to their legal department, or whatever, and then I never hear from them again.

The one exception is the well-known conservative magazine Commentary, to which I contributed a few very minor items more than fifty years ago, back when it was not at all conservative. This is what I wrote on October 2 of last year:

Some fifty years ago I contributed some book reviews to Commentary. Whatever the custom may be now, at that time I retained the copyright to this material, since, absent an explicit contract to the contrary, the copyright automatically belongs to the author. Now it appears that you sell access to these reviews on your website, even though these rights are not yours to sell. I was asked to pay for access to my own property !

I am willing to negotiate an arrangement under which I would grant you rights to sell access to my work in return for my having free usage of your archives.

In any case, please note that, as of now, you are infringing on my intellectual property rights.

Kindest regards, and best wishes for the new year.

Well, it did not take long to get an answer from the good people of Commentary. Here is what they wrote back, on October 5:

Dear Werner Cohn:

I apologize for any misunderstanding. We will remove your work from our website as soon as possible.

I hope you have a sweet new year.

Well, I can’t say that I was happy with this answer, but at least, I thought, they are doing the right thing: they know they are infringing on my property rights, and they agree to cease and desist, in full compliance with their own (current) private-property principles.

But there is a funny ending to this story. They have indeed removed my name from an old book review of mine, but the review itself is still there, published as “Reviewed by [blank].” No, I am not making this up. Click here.

UPDATE, about three hours later from the above:
Whoever says that Commentary has no shame is wrong, completely wrong. After I posted the above, and sent a link to Mr. John Podhoretz of Commentary magazine, lo and behold, a couple of hours later, two of my ancient book reviews have disappeared from the on-line archive of the magazine. And all that happened on shabat. Great work, John P. !

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