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Changes in the book trade 6


Copyright under pressure | Changes in the book trade

The current situation in the book trade is one of rapid change. It's important for writers to understand what is happening as it will impact on their own chances of getting their work published and how it will be published. This series is looking at the changes in the book trade, with a different focus each week. The first article dealt with the bookselling world, the second article looked at publishing, the third focused on print on demand and the fourth on self- publishing. The fifth dealt with Writers routes to their audiences and this sixth article looks at copyright under pressure.

Copyright under pressure

Copyright is under great pressure from the new media. Google have aroused publishers' ire by their attempts to digitise books and now publishers are setting up their own digital warehouses to preserve control. Big investments are being made in digitising backlist and the large companies' frontlist is now being digitised as part of the production process. Microsoft have recently backed away from their own version of Google's Search Inside programme, probably on the assumption that the internet search engine was so far ahead that they could not catch up.

It's never been easier to copy, 'borrow' or steal authors' work. Online plagiarism is rife and the idea that everything on the web is free is highly seductive.

But where does the author currently stand in all this? Authors must retain control over their copyrights, it is the very basis of intellectual property and the cornerstone of the book trade. It is essential to preserve writers' ownership of their work and make sure they are properly remunerated and acknowledged. Publishers are in the best position to defend authors' copyright, as in this area their interests are close to those of the writers on whom they depend.

There have been some major test cases relating to copyright in the courts recently. Earlier this year Tolkien's heirs sued the film company New Line Cinema for $150 million (£75 million) in compensatory damages, as well as punitive damages. There is big money involved in this case. The Tolkien trustees say that as the author's heirs they have not received any share of the $6 billion (over £3 billlion) which the films and DVDs of The Lord of the Rings have taken worldwide.

In a possibly even more newsworthy case, J K Rowling sued a US publisher over the Harry Potter Lexicon (see News Review 5 May). The fan who put the book together claimed it was homage to Harry Potter, but Rowling successfully maintained that Vander Ark had used large amounts of material from her books without seeking or getting permission to do so. This has been an important test case in relation to an author's right to control use of their work.

The current tussle going on internationally in relation to e-book rights shows again the ultimate importance of the author's control of their rights. Some American publishers are seeking to put world e-book rights into their contracts. Authors are entitled to hand these to them if they wish, as the crucial rule is that the rights in their work are theirs to dispose of. But if they do so they will have to accept that they may be damaging publishers elsewhere in the world, whose control of individual markets will be threatened. Ultimately the international publishers will object and this means that these authors won't be able to sell their work around the world in the same way.

But not all recent developments in copyright are against the writer's interest. 'Creative Commons' has provided a new way of licensing material so that it can be used for other purposes, depending on what parameters the author has set. The Internet has vastly increased authors' potential access to their market, and produced a range of new opportunities.

A little while ago Reg Carr, Librarian Emeritus at the University of Oxford's Bodleian Library, defended Google in the Bookseller:

'For the Bodleian, however - an early Google signatory - such efforts mark the liberation of millions of relatively obscure and out-of-copyright books from the depths of its vast stacks. Our involvement contributes both to the betterment of society and to the legacy of our founder, Elizabethan diplomat Sir Thomas Bodley, who sought a repository of information not simply for the University of Oxford, but for the wider world. The internet has provided the opportunity to reinterpret Bodley's vision of the library's universal value by adding a potential readership of billions to the 40,000 or so individuals who are able to physically visit its premises each year...

Public domain books belong where the worldwide public can use them; and that is where the Bodleian wants them to be seen. Like it or not, the internet is where the public looks first for information. To resist that inexorable tide of progress is, to paraphrase Cervantes, tilting at windmills.'

Digitisation is opening up new opportunities and the Internet is the public domain of our times. As much material as possible should be publicly available, but only when this does not threaten authors' continued right to control their intellectual property, as enshrined in their contracts and the rules governing copyright.


Chris HolifieldManaging director of WritersServices; spent working life in publishing,employed by everything from global corporations to start-ups; track record includes: editorial director of Sphere Books, publishing director of The Bodley Head, publishing director for start-up of upmarket book club, The Softback Preview, editorial director of Britain’s biggest book club group, BCA, and, most recently, deputy MD and publisher of Cassell & Co. She is also currently the Director of the Poetry Book Society; During all of this time aware of problems faced by writers, as publishing changed from idiosyncratic cottage industry, 'occupation for gentlemen', into corporate business of today. Writers encountered increasing difficulty in getting books edited or published. Authors create the books which are the raw material for the whole business. She believes it is time to bring them back to centre stage.


Changes in the Book Trade

1 Bookselling

2 Publishing

3 Print on demand and the long tail

4 Self-pubishing - 'really great' or career suicide?

5 Writers' routes to their audiences

7 Creative Commons

From the WritersServices site:

Inside Publishing on Copyright

Michael Legat's Factsheet deals with copyright from an author's point of view.

WritersPrintShop article on Clearing copyright

Next article: Creative Commons