Moss Rock Review – December 2009

Hooray! The prospect of more royalties for authors — from use on the web

Certainly writing a book and publishing it has many intangible rewards: pride, satisfaction, perhaps a catharsis, to name a few. Yet most of us are still delighted when the tangible (“Show me the money!”) rewards roll in.

Musicians, composers and music producers have long enjoyed a huge advantage over creative folks who are writers and illustrators. This advantage is the existence of strong rights agencies who vigorously levy and enforce performance and usage fees — even a restaurant owner who plays the radio must pay an annual fee — and then divvy up the money to the content creators. Some of the money can be attributed to a specific song, while other money is apportioned out to all musicians.

According to a recent NY Times article, “GEMA, the main collecting society for German music copyright owners, raises more than E850 million, or $1.3 billion, a year.” The cool thing is the scale of this: perhaps $100 BILLION are being collected worldwide by the music rights agencies. Great for musicians.

By comparison, the rights agencies for written content have been comparatively anemic — my ballpark figure would be 10% as effective in terms of dollars raised and disbursed. In the USA, Agio Publishing House’s authors are included in (the US Copyright Clearance Centre). In Canada, our authors register with Through reciprocal agreements, AccessCopyright receives money from (and collects money on behalf of) copyright licensing bodies in the UK, Australia and dozens of other countries. AccessCopyright gathers fees mainly from large corporations, government agencies and academic institutions, for specific copying (using an article as a chapter of a college “course pack”, for example) and for miscellaneous copying (such as people photocopying pages at their offices).

What’s needed is more robust enforcement, especially across the Internet, and new ways to reach out to other users. I have good news, offering authors reason to be optimistic:

  • Germany (according to the same NY Times article, Publisher Lays Out Plan to Save Newspapers by Eric PFanner, Dec 6, 2009) will be enacting new legislation to set up a rights monitoring and collection agency for newspaper content used on the web; this sets a good precedent for other (non-newspaper) written content;
  • Google has amassed full-page scans of millions of books and as part of the pending Google Books settlement, a new rights agency will be established for book content, so that for the first time ever, nearly all authors will be represented by one agency; and
  • micropayments (fractions of a cent in some cases) are now feasible because computer processing has become so inexpensive — we could envision, for example, someone happily paying a dollar to browse through 100 book pages while doing research (finding recipes or writing an essay), and Google also paying a portion of its ad revenues generated from searches of book pages to the new agency. Micropayments would enable easy legal usage by consumers, and make the alternatives (piracy or not using the material) less attractive.

We can be happy that authors’ rights to payment for viewing of their writing on the Web is now clearly “on the radar.” The tangible rewards for publishing may soon increase.

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