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A delivery van in Neurum, Innsbruck, Austria

One of the most charming and exasperating traits of small-city Austria is the locals’ casualness about copyright law. From a local plumber whose logo alludes to a popular TV series, to the cafe with a Disney Corp artist’s version of a Kipling character on their sign, to the academics who publish wherever and then stick the PDF on academia.edu as soon as it arrives in their inbox, they just do what they want as long as large sums of money are not involved. Ironically, Austrian Urheberrecht guarantees creators some privileges which in other countries they can sign away, such as the right to be acknowledged as the origin of a work. But on some other areas, they don’t fuss the details. Also, the Austrian academics I know have mostly moved away from assigning textbooks which are sold for money; they don’t write long tracts about the affordability of education (university in Austria costs about EUR 1600 a year in fees) or wicked commercial publishers charging hundreds of dollars for a calculus book, just put handouts together and share them.

Although I can’t put my finger on how, somehow this feels different than my gamer buddies explaining why they are not willing to pay $40 for a beautiful illustrated hardcover book by a game designer, or Jessamyn West agonizingly debating whether to tell library patrons that DRM can be broken or sci-hub exists. To me it feels more like the way Austrians smoke like chimneys, manage the sex trade, and accept polite corruption and horse-trading. Austria had to put up with the counter-reformation and watch National Socialists rebranded themselves as libertarian (freiheitlich), and quite a few Austrians don’t want to fight for fundamental reform, just quietly get what they want done in the grey areas.

Some people treat the letter of intellectual property law as a matter of cosmic significance, and lay down grand moral principles for purifying academic publishing in the certain righteousness of a preacher. The problem is that many of these beautiful abstractions won’t allow people to publish in a Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies, operating out of an independent scholar’s house and sold for a reasonable price, and they will allow them to publish in journals owned by multinational conglomerates which charge the lucky author several thousand dollars in Author Publishing Charges for the privilege of posting their article on the journal’s server. Sometimes people who are very privileged, with a job which budgets them time to work copyediting a journal, free server space and a fund to buy books or pay vanity publishers Author Publishing Charges, can’t see how the system works for people outside the charmed circle; and sometimes they can’t see how they are being manipulated so that parasites can keep profiting off their unpaid work and audiences they don’t know exist cannot read it. I am trying to move towards all my academic publications being free to read, but that is a bit complicated in my field and I can’t say that it is wrong for some journals to collect their costs from readers, and others to collect them from the government through salaries paid to volunteer workers or budgets assigned to libraries and vanity publishing Author Publishing Charges.

There is something to be said for people who decide that this is just another bit of human nonsense which people with money and power think up to explain why everyone else has to pay them rent forever. In Austria or Canada we can’t control intellectual property law, the worst bits get included in trade treaties negotiated by unelected officials in back rooms. So these people shrug their shoulders and do what they need to do on the edge of the law. Their approach won’t win the small satisfying victories of a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that fair dealing is a wider right than Disney Corp or Eisevier want it to be. But it might lead to a situation where the powers that be see that the law is about to become irrelevant and real reform happens real fast. Sometimes the people working with the system, and the people who ignore it, achieve things together that neither could achieve on their own.