A LITERARY ROUNDTABLE FOR THE BOOKISH COMMUNITY: The Sequel
Presented by the Writers Guild of Alberta and the University of Calgary Creative Writing Research Group,
Upstairs at Pages Bookstore on Kensington,
March 15, 2010.
This informative panel was presented by Samantha Warwick, with the Writers Guild of Alberta, who laid out the format and introduced the four speakers, professionals associated in one capacity or another with writing, publishing, taxation or legal issues. Each spoke for fifteen minutes, after which a Question and Answer session was opened to the audience.
The speakers were:
- Brian Brennan, journalist, author and area representative of the Writers Union of Canada, who encapsulated the recent Google settlement in the United States, and its implications for authors in Canada.
- Sarah Ivany, publisher of Freehand Books who explained the transition process of paper publications to electronic books, and the possibilities which open up in that process.
- Lawyer, David de Vlieger, from Code Hunter LLP who addressed the issue of copyright and electronic publishing.
- Freelance writer and accountant, Toby Welch, who provided tax tips.
Brian Brennan and The Google Settlement:
Essentially, about 8 – 10 years ago, and in accordance with its mandate of “organizing the world’s information to make it universally accessible” Google began the project of digitizing (read: scanning) out-of-print books. It entered into partnership with a group of businesses with vested interests in not paying royalties for previously published out-of-print materials, and which included The New York Public Library and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. When people typed in the appropriate author/subject/title, the page which matched the search criteria would show up in an online frame.
Google did this without permission from the owners of the copyrights. When a group of writers and publishers realized that Google’s actions constituted copyright violation on such a massive scale, they launched a civil suit in US jurisdiction. Google’s arguments against their suit were that the scans fell along the lines of “Fair Use.”
What constitutes fair use varies between jurisdictions. Some places have laws where writers may freely cite a portion of a published or recorded work for academic purposes or for professional purposes. Others require the payment of royalties. In Canada, for example, libraries are required to pay royalties to authors for the use of their materials, but not so in the States. There are differences in the length of private vs. public domain.
The court battle between the coalition of authors and publishers and Google went on for about 18 months, after which Google said, “Look, the only people making money here are the lawyers. Can’t we settle this out of court?”
The coalition of authors in question concurred. They hammered out a 325-page settlement and agreed upon a $125M US figure. One-third was to go to the writers, one-third to Google registry, one-third to the lawyers. There was an opt-in/opt-out clause. If an author opted out, Google would have to remove that work. If the writer decided to opt-in, the disbursement worked out to about $60 US for each work, plus Google offers 63 per cent royalties on all future sales of material from its registry — a darned sight better than most booksellers and distributors. On the other hand, the writer has signed away international rights in perpetuity, because once an article is published online, there are almost no restrictions over access to that material, anywhere and anytime.
The deadline for the opt-in/opt-out was in January.
Since Google intends to continue scanning ‘out-of-print’ works, which extends the scope of their activities to a larger field of writers, and from the past into the future, the matter has come up in US court again — Justice, Danny Chin, presiding. He heard the initial arguments on February 18, 2010, and commented that he was going to take ‘more than a day to decide’. There were quite a lot more parties arguing against the settlement than for it.
Justice Chin also asked Google why it didn’t just try to ask writers for permission first. Google pointed out that Microsoft had already tried this and it didn’t work. It took money, or the possibility of a settlement to bring writers forward.
Some of the writers at the roundtable were of the opinion that the Google settlement wasn’t that bad for them. Once books are out-of-print, writers usually haven’t got a prayer of re-publishing them again in the future, so this extends the opportunity of making a few extra pennies, but some areas of concern for the Writers Union of Canada are:
- Libraries in the US will have unrestricted access to Canadian publications without paying royalties.
- There is no indication of what measures will be taken to find rights holders in the future, and what will be done if they cannot be contacted.
- There is no indication of what percentage of the work will be scanned and made available. In Canada, a critic or reviewer may only use a small percentage of a recorded or published text without paraphrasing for the purposes of elucidating or substantiating their views. The exact amount is not spelled out in terms of percentages or numbers of sentences, but the intention of the law is that the overwhelming brunt of the ideas and exposition must come from the writer of the article, not the quoted material.
“We have been following this issue very closely,” Brennan explained, and encouraged writers to read up on the latest information posted at the Union’s website.
Sarah Ivany and E-Book Publication
Ivany was quite clear that E-books are no longer a conceptual issue for writers and publishers. They already exist in the form of Amazon Kindle readers and similar applications, or in downloadable pdfs, so publishing must take their existence seriously and rise to meet the challenges this new media presents. E-books are changing the manner in which publishers and writers approach publication. At the moment, her frustration as an editor is at how clunky the formating applications are. Poetry is particularly difficult to format, for example, with its irregular line structure and phrasing. Since many small independent publishers take a great deal of pride in the production values of the finished book, these media platforms do not meet their requirements.
Writers should probably be looking at forming multimedia collectives, since the very concepts of books are shifting which the advent of electronic media to a multi-sensory experience. In other words, future books could include sound effects, sound tracks, graphics and artwork, snippets of film-style storytelling. They wouldn’t necessarily resemble text on a page. The lines between art genres could become blurred, and ‘lone wolf’ writers may have to join artistic cooperatives.
Ivany then proceeded to describe the labour pains of this new format. Amazon, when it launched Kindle, failed to realize the full costs which publishers have to carry in order to bring books to market. Essentially, it removed the onus from publishing houses of having to print, store, ship or sell the books, but there are other hidden costs incurred with editing, proofreading, factchecking, research, design/formating, marketing/ promotions and administration, and that’s before the issue of the writer’s advance and royalties. Amazon’s original pricing did not take these issues into account, and the original price structure was completely unrealistic from the point of view of publishers, especially small-scale publishers.
Then there are issues of rights, national vs. international distribution, policing of IP addresses [Editor's note: "Even now, countries like Switzerland are stepping forward to protect their national publication industries by levying tariffs."] Ivany suggested that writers who negotiate their contracts should now insist upon world rights since distribution can no longer be managed over the internet as easily as with solid physical objects like books. So, for example, if a writer publishes an e-book nationally in Canada, and then tries to negotiate international publication later with an American house, the Americans will simply point out that their market, the readers in the US who would buy the book, can easily pick up from Canadian sites and sources at the lesser cost — hence there is no point to them paying for those rights. On the other hand, electronic publication extends the possibility for readership far beyond the traditional boundaries.
E-books also change the concept of out-of-print, which presents a thorny issue. What does this entail? Once published in digital form, the material is available forever. How are royalties to be collected or disbursed?
Lastly, what sort of culture do writers want to cultivate in their communities? Independent venues like bookstores and publishers have been part of cultivating supportive environments for writers in the past on a smaller community level.
The thoughts which Ivany provoked circulate around the age-old question of how writers are to make a living wage when there is an online culture of entitlement which revolves around content consumption for free. At this stage, it appears as though they are enabled by online media platforms like blogs and bandwidth providers and search engines to cannibalize writers and other artists, and yet content providers have little other recourse for audiences.