Monday, February 27, 2006

Now you © it, soon you won’t

Now you © it, soon you won’t is the title of an article in last Saturday's Times. Under the title, the sub-heading reads 'The laws of copyright are being rendered meaningless by the growth of digital technology. So how will writers and artists earn a crust?' The writer is Jamie King.

One's heart sinks a bit, because at first sight this looks like just another ain't-it-awful complaint about Google, Napster and all like that. Another superficial, beginners-start-here piece, of the kind which, sadly, one has come to expect, even in the Times. But, mercifully, it isn't like that at all.

The article turns out to be entirely realistic, entirely reasonable, and unusually well informed. Jamie King is described, at the end of the article, as 'a writer and activist in the field of intellectual property.' The thrust of his article is that the availability of the internet, plus digital copies of works of art (not just books), means that in five years' time (give or take a bit) there may no longer be any reason to pay for a book, a film, or a piece of music, other than a conscious desire to remunerate the creators -- a desire which, he suggests, is simply not going to be strong enough in most cases. Most people will just take the music track/book and say thank you nicely, but that's about it. Digital rights management systems? King seems to consider them doomed (as do I, and I don't even know anything about them).

Unlike most people who pontificate about this subject, King then goes on to ask some fairly obvious questions, few of which seem to be being addressed anywhere. Questions such as: if paying for a 'work of art' (for want of a better term) will be largely voluntary, how are writers (in particular) going to get paid? If the old model ceases to work, what new, and equally effective, model is going to be put in its place?

King emphasises that 'rethinking copyright does not commit one to a "pro-piracy/anti-artist" position. On the contrary, the question of remuneration is foremost in the minds of many of those working creatively around copyright... If it could be shown that we could do things differently -- sustain cultural production while allowing freer access to work -- what would be the argument not do so so?'

Good question. Of course one argument not to do so -- from a certain point of view -- would be that it would upset a lot of powerful people in publishing, who would have to start thinking in wholly new ways. And that, as is demonstrated daily, is a painful and difficult thing to do.

The Times article does not go into solutions to the conundrum which it describes. However, at a recent conference, Jamie King presented a paper which does put forward one possible solution, and the paper is available online. I have to say that I consider the solution which is offered to be hideously unattractive in principle and totally unworkable in practice. But at least the man is thinking, which most other people in publishing are not. Or, if they are, they are keeping mousy quiet about what it is that they are thinking.

Jamie King offers two web sites which will in due course be worth looking at if you're interested in the general subject of his article. One is the Pretext Project, which is (or will be) a publishing company dedicated to the free distribution of its texts. And the other is Banned Books. Neither site has anything to say for itself just yet, though both prove to have some powerful allies: the Arts Council, PEN, etc.


Anonymous said...

This all depends on whether people wll give up there love of things. DVD sales show no sign of slowing down. People still like the shinny discs. Same with CDs. And it's hard to get into a comfy chair with a computer screen on your lap.

I can't see people giving up a good book anytime soon.

As far as intellectual property is concerned I think there does need to be a change in the way artists make money from what they create. Though I'm not sure how. The rumour is that muscians make more money from touring than selling the CD. That doesn't explain how enya, who has never toured, is very comfortable.

The internet is filled with pages and pages of stuff by bad writers. It's too easy to publish. What is really missing is an effective filtering system. Newspapers and Magazines are there to make money not too offend potential advertisers. So you can't have effective reviews there. Most hardly try any more. They review some obscure thing that no-one ever reads. And ignore what is popular and what is actually read.

This getting off the point slightly. I don't think people mind paying for anything as long as they feel that they are not getting ripped off. If they feel that they are then if they can get something for 'free' then why not.

The success of itunes is that people can pay for what they want. The same with the itunes video downloads. $1.99 seems a small price to watch a favourite episode. 8.99 for a good book might be pushing it slighly especially if you can get one for £3.73. It's a bestseller so it has to be good good. Doesn't it?

Anonymous said...


It might be useful to consider your posting in the context of the "Artist's Resale Right Regulations" which came into effect in the UK on Feb 14th 2006.

Copyright a dead duck, methinks not quite yet.

Clive Keeble

Anonymous said...

Gosh, Jamie King lost me on the part about "Criminalisation is the inseperable partner of enclosure." I need more sleep.

Heck, no one makes money on writing except those who can buy their way onto Oprah anyway. This is the age where writers squawk if you quote more than three punctuation marks from their article, and everyone claims their photo of the Mona Lisa is copyrighted. Why do folks keep talking about the nightmare writers created for themselves?

The caveman did pretty well with his cave drawings, hoping for an occasional leg of wildebeest if someone liked them. Has anything changed?

(I've had few chances of late to visit His Grumpiness and remind myself I'm missing much, here. Good to see you still at it!!)

Anonymous said...

Are pirated Ebooks really on par with pirated music and films as far as the threat is concerned? Reading from a computer screen is actually very restrictive, and certainly a much different experience to reading an actual book. Books are also more portable (yes, moreso than a laptop computer) and versatile. ISTM that the book as an object is just as desirable to the reader as its text, and for that reason, Ebooks will always struggle to compete -- even when they're illegal.

The audio book of course, is another story. Pun totally intended. ;)

Anonymous said...

IP? Three nonfiction books later and hundreds of thousands of copies sold, I just want the money upfront now when I sign a contract. Yes, I'd sign my rights--digital and all--over in a heartbeat for payment in full. No incremental doling out in three or four protracted payments, no strings attached, no "advance AGAINST royalties," no "reserve AGAINST returns," no depending upon the editor and marketing department to know what they are doing, no having to put up with contract clauses designed to reduce my royalties at every turn.

Jamie King says that in "five years' time...there may no longer be any reason to pay for a book..." Sounds possible. But keep in mind that HarperCollins just announced they are not charging at all for the online version of "Go it Alone" by Bruce Judson. No, they are making money off the advertising that was sold and that "supports" the book online. ADVERTISING!

So sit me down and say: Lynne, you can roll the dice with a traditional contract and worry about all the attendant IP issues, or you can take the money and run."

Me worry about IP? No thanks. Call my book a "work for hire." Bring it back. It's clean. It's simple. It works for me.

Anonymous said...

Andrew thinks no one makes money by being an author except those who go on Oprah. Well, I have to contradict you Andrew, because you're dead wrong. I and many other authors make a decent living by our writing - and I want that to continue.

I don't see why I should be expected to give away the fruits of my hard work for nothing. I have to eat, pay for my house and car, buy clothes, just like anyone else. I work ten-hour days at my writing, at least 6 days a week, love what I do, and as long as readers enjoy my books, I deserve payment for my labours

I do have a practical solution to offer, however. If visual artists can get droits de suite for ongoing sales of their work, why can't writers?

This idea is gaining momentum and is being investigated by writers' organisations all over the English speaking world. A small extra royalty payment could be required eg 10P for each resale of a book for the first two or three years of its published life. With computers that's not too hard to track.

This should even be paid by charity shops, who might be helping their charities by selling books, but are having a disastrous and unfair effect on new book sales and therefore authors' incomes.

Droits de suite for the first two or three years of a book's life seems to me an eminently practical way to give writers the remuneration they deserve and need. The publication date inside a book could easily include month as well as year of publication. The publishers could collect second-sale royalties and take a small percentage (say 10%) for their efforts.

It's really very simple: if people want to read they need to pay authors to write!

Anonymous said...

I disagree wholeheartedly with your sentiments, Anna Jacobs. Charity shops paying a
"royalty" on sales of second/third/fourth hand books? No way! The reason
they are "charity" shops is because they are usually for the poorer members
of our community to allow them to purchase clothes, books furniture etc. and
they are more importantly even, "charity" shops because they are raising
money for worthwhile organisations. Is it really that important that 10P on
the re-sale of your books (which you've already been paid for to get
published in the first place) goes back into your pocket rather than into
helping save animals, or clothe, feed or or house the needy in our community
or any number of other worthy causes? I think not. You got your book
publlished, you were paid for it. It's time to let it go and be charitable
enough and happy that you in some way may be helping those less fortunate
than yourself. Surely it's enough to know that your writing can bring some
small amount of joy to someone in an old person's home or elsewhere reading
one of your books purchased from a charity shop?

Anonymous said...

yeah Lynne, 'Overcome Jet Lag', two decades ago. not exactly relevant to what's going on now.

Anonymous said...

Well, Anon, thanks for the snide comment.

Actually, I am on the other side of publishing--the business side.

Your research skills leave a lot to be desired! You're fired.

Anonymous said...

Ah dear, Oprah will be crushed to find folks are raking it in without her! Since writers always jump in on these woe-is-me discussions to say they're earning the bucks, the argument always goes full circle (and will go on and on).

Long as I get a few pennies to get them there droits out of my suit!

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