Lawrence Lessig has drawn a line in the sands of intellectual property. He declares today that:

I will not agree to publish in any academic journal that does not permit me the freedoms of at least a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.

I couldn’t be more delighted by his resolve. If academics of Lessig’s stature refuse to publish the absurdly restrictive copyright agreements required by so many academic publishers, it may put pressure on those publishers to develop more reasonable agreements. The question is how to best accelerate that process, and in particular, how to restructure the academic incentive sytem so that it becomes possible for more academics to make the same choice Lessig has.

Refusing to publish under restrictive agreements is a good option for senior academics with tenured positions at prestigious universities — academics whose future does not hinge on each publishing opportunity, in other words. But for junior academics, the price of challenging copyright can be much higher.

I recently withdrew from a forthcoming “Handbook on Internet Security”, to be published by Wiley Publishing, because the publishing agreement required me to relinquish my copyright. Given that the contribution was to be based on core material from my dissertation — which like many recent Ph.D.s, I hope to publish in fuller form — there were practical as well as principled reasons to refuse to sign the agreement. But if I were on the academic job market or in a tenure-track position, that foregone publication opportunity would be an advantage lost. Junior academics simply can’t afford to turn down publication opportunities.

Given the enormous publication pressures within academia, it’s simply not reasonable to expect individual (especially junior) academics to drive the process of change through individual adherence to the kind of policy Lessig himself has adopted. (Though kudos to anyone who is prepared to take that step.)

A more effective strategy might use some combination of social and institutional pressure. For social pressure, how about a system for rating the copyright agreements of different scholarly publications? A searchable online directory that lets academics find the most copyright-friendly journals in their field would encourage scholars to send their works to those journals, improving their quality, prestige, and hopefully, subscription base — thereby creating a market incentive for better copyright policy.

And at an institutional level, why shouldn’t academic libraries factor copyright policies into their purchasing decisions? I’d love to see university librarians adopt policies whereby journal subscription decisions systematically favour journals that give fair rights to their contributors.