Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Authors' Intellectual Property Rights in the Age of Google

Authors Guild general counsel, Jan Constantine, stands on a chair at Two Sisters Bar and Books in San Francisco. The New York based attorney just testified before Congress about the challenges authors face in the world of the Internet.

It was a stunning day to visit San Francisco, April 7, 2014: the high was a very unusual (for April) 77°F, and there was not a visible cloud or a finger of fog to be seen. But I wasn't there entirely to enjoy the weather, nor the fascinating street scenes of this place we peninsula residents just call The City. 

Union Square in San Francisco on a sunny April Day.

I was on hand to hear from executives of the Authors Guild about the really critical issues faced by authors in the age of "everything is being digitized on the Internet."

As a visible indicator of our smallness, we gathered, not at--for example--the posh Saint Francis Hotel, where I had tea earlier and saw conventioneers finishing up their meetings at the bar. No such power corridors for authors.

The Guild held its social/political event across town, at the funky and very, very tiny Two Sisters Bar and Books on Hayes Street in San Francisco. Author's Guild general counsel Jan Constantine flew in from New York to attend and on hand were NY Times best-selling author, Michelle Richmond of Hillsborough, California, and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer T.J. Stiles, of San Francisco--both members of the Author's Guild council.

It was nice to socialize with all these fascinating people but more important than that was the pressing business at hand. It should be of interest to all Americans who read and/or use the Internet--so that should cover just about everybody.

Zillion-dollar companies such as Google want to digitize everything ever written and have it all available for "free" to Internet users. Librarians especially want this to happen.  But what about the people who create the intellectual property in the first place? How will they be compensated when all of their work is available for "free?"

Remember: Google sells ads on its web sites and generates oodles of revenue doing this. Libraries--if they download books and/or make digitized versions available to their members--are directly taking away royalty dollars from authors.

ASCAP--the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers--was formed a century ago to solve just this problem for songwriters and lyricists and music publishers. They faced growing challenges from the new technology of their day--radio. Sponsors wanted singers and bands to play music on the radio so they, the sponsors, could advertise their products. Nobody wanted to pay fees to use that copyrighted material though station owners could and did make millions from these broadcasts.

ASCAP invented then negotiated the concept of licensing fees for specific uses of published and copyrighted music, songs and lyrics--a system still in place today. ASCAP collects the licensing fees in all media now and distributes them to the artists. Without such a program--just to give you an example--somebody like Beach Boy Brian Wilson might have been paid--when he was young and just starting out--a fee of a few hundred dollars for "Surfin' Safari" and then been forced to sit back and watch as everyone else got rich from his song. Those getting rich might--without licensing--be able to just shrug and say; "He was, after all, paid for it." 

Thanks to the work of ASCAP, it didn't end like that for young song writers like Brian Wilson.  Why should it work that way with books?

And if you think J.K. Rowling's work should be available for "free" on the Internet, take that concept to its logical conclusion: should farmers make sure we all get free food from their labor? Should schools steal pens from Target to give "free" to students? Schools indeed are a worthy cause. Right? 

You can see where this is going. Big companies like Google have a financial interest in digitizing all books written and published since the beginning of time. Writers working today, and families of the heirs of writers long gone, feel there needs to be a better way to license--or compensate them--for this valuable and unique material talented individuals sweated so hard to create from their brains.

Technology brings both benefits and challenges. This challenge to the intellectual property rights of authors needs to be faced now. Wanting to own the rights to something unique one creates doesn't make one anti-technology. 

So thanks to the Author's Guild for taking the lead on this. We do have a guy in the White House right now who made a lot of money writing a book. He ought to come to the aid of his fellow writers. If he would like to leave a legacy: that would be an important one. 

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1 comment:

james said...

Getting rich by giving away somebody else's stuff is a proven internet concept. The music sharing sites started it. Now a photographer is regarded as peculiar for expecting to be paid for a photo. Copyright law is still effective and enforceable. People need to understand why the protection of intellectual property is fundamental right.