"Open access is a broad international movement that seeks to grant free and open online access to academic information, such as publications and data. A publication is defined 'open access' when there are no financial, legal or technical barriers to accessing it - that is to say when anyone can read, download, copy, distribute, print, search for and search within the information, or use it in education or in any other way within the legal agreements."
(Image and text: Open Access website, https://www.openaccess.nl/en/what-is-open-access).
Does open access always mean "free"?
Open access (OA) refers to free, unrestricted online access to research outputs such as journal articles and books. OA content is open to all, with no access fees. (Springer Nature)
Is open access legal? Does it infringe on copyright?
"Open Access [itself] is not an infringement on copyright...making your [own] work open access is perfectly legal."
You would be infringing on copyright if the information being used is not from an open access site or journal, but one where access was limited by embargo or paywall (i.e., journal subscription):
"Authors (or their institutions) own the original copyright to their research, but when publishing the original rights holders are often asked to transfer these rights to the publisher, so that the publisher sets the terms for providing open access. OpenAIRE encourages researchers to choose publishers who let them retain their author rights, so that immediate access can be provided. Ideally, an open license is applied to the work, so that access and reuse rights are clearly defined for every end-user. Creative Commons (such as CC BY 4.0 for publications and CC0 for data) or GNU (for software and code) are very suitable for this purpose. If the publisher does not standardly allow you to retain your rights, please consider negotiating this using with an addendum to the publication agreement. Some publishers of Open Access journals ask for a transfer of copyrights but still provide immediate open access via the journal home page. If you have transferred your rights to the publisher and the article is published in a closed access journal but you still want to provide open access, you can do this through self-archiving. Sherpa/RoMEO offers a journal-by-journal overview of publisher self-archiving policies." (updated 14 May 2020, OpenAIRE).
Is open access a new idea?
The idea of open access to research has existed for a long time. In the 1940s, "American sociologist Robert King Merton stated: 'Each researcher must contribute to the 'common pot' and give up intellectual property rights to allow knowledge to move forward.'" In 1971, Project Gutenberg was created when University of Illinois student Michael Hart digitized the United States Declaration of Independence, simultaneously creating the first ebook. (Wikipedia, "Timeline of Open Access"). Project Gutenberg has operated ever since as the world's first online library of digital ebooks, most available freely (Project Gutenberg).
Who benefits from open access?
"Open access makes it possible for anyone to read academic research. Research articles affect society. Members of the public may comment on research via social media. Traditional media may do a story on a research finding. The costs for journal subscriptions continue to rise. In the past 30 years, the cost for subscribing to a journal has outpaced inflation by 250%. These rising prices mean that fewer institutions can afford subscriptions. This makes this business model unsustainable" (Enago Academy, "Who Benefits from Open Access?").
"Most publishers own the rights to the articles in their journals–not the authors. Anyone who wants to read the articles pays a fee to access them. Institutions and libraries help provide access to paywalled research through costly negotiations. Even then, no part of the article can be reused by researchers, students, or taxpayers without permission from the publisher, often at the cost of an additional fee. Open Access returns us to the values of science: to help advance and improve society" (PLOS, "Why Open Access?").
Are there any downsides or negatives to open access?
Here are some links from dissenters of the open access movement: