Posted by: Kay at Suicyte | February 21, 2008

Cui bono ?

I really shouldn’t write a blog posting right now, but rather work on my slides for an upcoming conference. Alas, working on slides is not my favorite occupation, and now I find myself pondering questions like “Is inviting me for talking at a conference a service for me or for the audience?”. A strange question to ask, maybe (unless you have heard one of my previous talks and thus can safely discard the idea that it might be to the benefit of the audience). Here is what made me think about this problem in the first place:

On previous occasions (e.g. in my blog, but also in the discussion of other people’s blogs) I have complained about software and web servers that are free to use for academics, but which charge an (often horrendous) amount of money if you happen to work for a company. For obvious reasons, I don’t like this practice, but I can understand the underlying logic: The software authors or right owners assume that my usage of their service helps me to earn big money, so it is just fair if they charge me big money as well. Today, I noticed a similar arrangement for the use of copyrighted material at academic conferences. In this particular case, however, I fail to see the point.

An hour ago, I browsed the contents of the new issue of Nature (online, of course), more specifically this article by a group I used to work with in the past. At that point, I noticed for the first time a small link button entitled ‘rights and permissions’. Probably, these links have been around for quite some time, but so far I must have missed them. With the nagging thought of imminent slide preparation in the back of my head, I got curious and thought “well, let’s assume I want to use a figure from this paper in my talk. This link will probably tell me what I have to do for getting a permission”. I clicked the link and answered a few innocuous questions like “what to use? figure! “, “how many? one!”, “what purpose? academic conference!”. When I arrived at the question “requestor type?” there was this sinking feeling that this story would not come to a happy ending. My first impulse was to lie (it is just a web form, after all), so I checked “university/public research institute”. After submitting the form, I got the encouraging answer

This reuse request is free of charge although you are required to obtain a license through Rightslink and comply with the license terms and conditions. You will not be charged for this order.

Ok, that is not so bad. I have seen many people using figures from published papers in their talks. I have no idea if they really asked for permission, but if they did – at least they didn’t have to pay for it. My next experiment was to go back to the form, this time staying closer to the truth and answering “Other for-profit company” as the requestor type. Upon submission, I learned that I would have to pay $690 for showing the figure in my presentation. Or $747.50 if I want to use the high-res version. I briefly checked if there was a discount if I requested more than one figure, but no, there wasn’t. At least, NPG is candid about their conditions and doesn’t try to evade by saying ‘contact our sales department for a quote’.

Sorry Jürg, no figure from your paper will be shown in my talk. I just cannot afford it. Didn’t fit the topic anyway. But now, instead of eagerly starting to draw some figures, I find myself wondering why showing a measly blot or schematic must be that darn expensive? Le me start with a simpler question: why would a publisher want to control the amount of copyrighted figures shown at an academic conference? The standard reasoning, I guess, would go: There are lots of people in the room who get to see the figure and thus do not have to buy a copy of Nature anymore. Or something along these lines.

But then, why does it make a difference if the talk is presented by somebody working at a university or at a biotech company? The only logical reason for this distinction would be if the beneficiary of showing the figure in my talk would be me rather than the audience. I am not sure how publishers would argue here, maybe ‘by presenting this copyrighted figure in his conference talk, the speaker will be enabled to earn lots of money (travel reimbursement), so we deserve our share of it’. Or, alternatively, ‘these biotech guys are made of money, so why not ask for $690, it is just peanuts for them’. Either way, with this price tag, I have no choice but to draw all figures myself.

P.S. I have just checked JBC, which uses a similar form for permission requests, but arrives at a more moderate price of $33 for an estimated audience of 250. Unfortunately, limiting the number of conference attendants to 12 (closer to my average audience) doesn’t help to cut the cost any further.



  1. In general, aren’t uses of published material in academic or critical discourse generally considered fair use, and thus exempt from normal obligations to the copyright holder?

  2. This is also what i had thought, but I am not a lawyer. Often, the written laws are not in accordance with what everybody assumes.

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