Springer Nature, one of the world’s largest publishers of journals and electronic books has filed a prospectus for the purposes of an initial public offering. The prospectus is a fascinating read as it eschews the usual lobbying talking points in favour of legally required frank disclosure. For example, the document provides considerable insights into the continuing emergence of open access, noting that 27% of all research articles published by Springer Nature in 2017 was published on an open access basis.
The prospectus contains several discussions that are directly relevant to the Canadian copyright review. For example, there is no reference to Canada’s fair dealing, but it does point to a German law that features obvious similarities since it permits libraries to distribute journal articles and up to 10 percent of a work to users for non-commercial purposes. The prospectus also places the spotlight on changes in the education market that impact its business. Consistent with Canadian studies that do not emphasize copyright (B.C. Book Publishers, Association of Canadian Publishers), Springer Nature does not reference it within the educational publishing market either. Instead, it points to used textbook sales, rentals, parallel imports, government created materials, procurement processes, and local review processes as business risks. The company cites many markets (Spain, Poland, India, and South Africa among them), but nothing on Canada.
In addition to its educational publishing analysis, its discussion of “e-piracy” sites that post unauthorized copies of journal articles is particularly noteworthy. Sites such as SciHub have faced a steady stream of lawsuits and efforts to shut down a site that has posted millions of academic journal articles. The site is typically referred to as a “pirate site” and the Springer Nature prospectus identifies such as sites as a business risk. However, its disclosure on SciHub also reveals that the company does not believe that it has had a negative effect on subscription revenues, noting that the site operates in parallel with subscriptions, not as a substitute for them:
E-piracy websites typically allow users to access content through proxies and thereby bypass publishers’ paywalls. We believe that our subscription customers access SciHub in parallel, but not as a replacement to, our traditional subscription services. To our knowledge the availability of our content through these aggregators has not resulted in subscription terminations.
The company is careful to emphasize that this may change in the future and that it remains active in trying to shut the sites down (or to remove content with approximately two million takedown notices sent last year alone). Yet the express acknowledgement that it does not believe that e-piracy sites have resulted in lost subscriptions and that they operate in parallel to existing subscriptions confirms what many have long maintained, namely that claims about the impact of unauthorized or piracy sites are frequently exaggerated. Springer Nature leaves little doubt that it wants to stop these sites, but its admission on the current impact has obvious parallels with similar efforts such as the Bell coalition website blocking proposal, which has also faced criticism for attempts to link cord cutting with unauthorized streaming services.