Preserving Your Intellectual Legacy

Michael Wolfe
April 16, 2015
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For many academics, publication is how scholarship is validated and communicated. But publication is not the end of any given work's intellectual life: for most scholarly authors, the hope is that their writings will have continuing relevance for generations to come.

Unfortunately, publishers' business realities and legal complications can often stand between authors and their dissemination goals, particularly when it comes to older titles that were written before ebooks and digital distribution were a standard feature of publishing. Those books might now be out of print, available only in certain libraries or as used copies that can be expensive or difficult to find.

You might be surprised to learn how many books suffer this fate. Copyright terms are now very long—lasting either 95 years or until 70 years after the author's death—and the copyrights in published works are very rarely controlled by the author. The result? You can buy new books without trouble, and books old enough to be out of copyright (mostly books from before the 1920s) are readily available from a variety of sources, but titles from most of the twentieth century can be shockingly hard to track down. Even though such a book might have an author who would like to see it widely read, the publisher's control of the copyright can prevent authors from taking action.

Not only do these works lose their impact through obscurity, they also lose their place in the classroom. As UC Berkeley University Librarian and Authors Alliance co-founder Tom Leonard points out, there is a limited supply of many in-demand, out-of-print books on campus, making them "unassignable" in most classroom settings.

The good news is that academic authors can ensure that their works remain discoverable and available. For older books, authors may have the right to reclaim their copyrights, or may find that their publishers are amenable to giving authors the rights they need to see their work archived online or otherwise made newly available. Authors Alliance has a new guide that thoroughly addresses how these arrangements work. For new books, a little negotiating savvy or the willingness to work with bold new programs like University of California Press's open access imprint, Luminos, can ensure either that authors retain the necessary rights to keep their books in circulation, or—in the case of open access—that titles are made publicly available from the very start.

While many authors would like to see their works have long intellectual lives, they might not have the resources they need to feel empowered when it comes to managing their publication contracts and copyrights. A core Authors Alliance project is to work to see that authors have the tools they need to ensure that their works are able to make continuing scholarly impact regardless of whether or not they remain commercially viable. If these issues speak to you, we encourage you to visit authorsalliance.org for more resources and further information about how to participate in our mission.

Michael Wolfe is Executive Director of Authors Alliance and a Copyright Research Fellow at Berkeley Center for Law and Technology. 


The Berkeley, California-based nonprofit Authors Alliance was formed to further the public interest in facilitating widespread access to works of authorship by assisting and representing authors who want to disseminate knowledge and products of the imagination broadly. It provides information and tools designed to help authors better understand and manage key legal, technological, and institutional aspects of authorship in the digital age.