NLW Digitisation Proposals
Do You Know What You Own?
Do you know what you own? Most writers have only the vaguest idea. That article you sold to a periodical all those years ago, they paid you for it so they own it, don’t they? Your poem in issue #106 of Taliesin which someone now wants to include in an anthology, it’s down to the publishers to give permission, isn’t it? Well, not exactly. Ownership of an author’s output is governed by the laws of copyright. In the UK we need do nothing to register this. Write something and the copyright is yours automatically. Copyright exists in the form of words you use, the actual sentences or the lines of the poem, but not in the ideas behind them. Plots are free. So too are ideas. But words used to frame them are not. The copyright in your words will continue for as long as you live and once you die it will persist as an asset of your estate for a further seventy years. After that the work enters the public domain. It can then be used without permission or payment. Check your local bookshop – there you’ll find new novels in paperback at anything from £5.50 to £15.00. Sitting alongside them will be a rack of copyright lapsed world’s classics at bargain basement prices. In the case of the former the author is usually getting a royalty. With the latter money does not change hands.
When a piece of writing is used in a magazine or an anthology the publisher rents it. They acquire what is known as first serial rights. They have permission to use it once. In exchange they might pay the author a fee if they are a professional operation or, if not, give them a free copy. Cons and scams begin when authors are offered neither complimentary copies of the magazine in which their work appears nor a fee and are expected instead to pay in order to obtain a copy. If you are made this kind of offer Literature Wales' advice is to turn it down.
With book publication or with work commissioned for radio or TV a similar consideration applies. Publishers of your book should offer you a contract which will give you either an advance fee roughly equivalent to the royalty you might earn on the first printing, or agree to pay you the royalty after it has been earned (i.e. through copies being sold). Royalties are paid annually. Sometimes publishers offer a mix of both advance and royalty. A sum up front and then the rest down the line. Where the publisher is very small there is often no royalty at all but payment made instead by way of goodwill and free copies. Scams and cons again begin to operate when the publisher starts suggesting that you might like to contribute to production costs. Beware. Writers should not pay but should instead be paid. Be professional.
Much of the copyright system described above has been thrown into turmoil with the arrival of what are known as digital rights. These cover use of an author’s work in digital rather than traditional hard–copy printed form. Sometimes this can be on a DVD or a CD-ROM but usually it means on the internet. The appearance of poetry, articles and indeed whole novels on the world wide web is governed by the same basic copyright law as hard-copy print. At least it should be. Custom and practise, however, is pointing at rapid change.
Libraries around the world are rushing to digitise their holdings. This means to make available in ready publicly accessible form via the internet the content of the works on their shelves. No need any longer to visit the National Library at Aberystwyth to don white gloves and look at the ancient pages of Brut y Tywysogion. Log on here and there are all the pages – viewable entirely for free and with no problem parking your car in order to get to see them. A service for the public has been created that is entirely in keeping with the spirit that founded the public library service. And what is more is that the work is well out of copyright so no permissions are needed and money need not change hands.
At the Poetry Library in London they are trying to digitise representative copies of all of Britain’s poetry magazines. Entire sample issues of magazines such as Iota, Ambit, Modern Poetry In Translation and Second Aeon can be viewed and if necessary cut, pasted, printed-off, loaded onto an ipod or sent on to friends, entirely without cost. The Library has made arrangements with the magazine’s publishers and has then contacted the original copyright holders, usually the actual author of the poems concerned, and asked permission to use the work. Fees have not been offered. Many poets have been delighted to see their verses get a new lease of life and are pleased to give permission for them o be used for free, forever, right across the world. Others have said that, no, they live by their writing and would prefer some financial recompense. Try to access their pages at the Poetry Library and a copyright refused notice appears instead of verse.
Most periodicals and many anthologies use work without formalising the publishing relationship with the original author. There might be a letter which says yes, we’ll use it. Or that message might, instead, have been conveyed in person or by phone. Sometimes there is a letter from the publisher to which a cheque has been attached. This small fee covers the cost to the magazine of “renting” the work on that one occasion. Digital rights either did not exist when publication occurred or were simply ignored.
A number of book publishers are now looking at ways in which their output might be offered as e-books, downloadable electronic versions of the printed work, readable on a standard computer screen, on a laptop, on a handheld ipac, on a specialist e-book reader or, in some cases, on the tiny screen of an ipod. Technology is advancing so swiftly that the hardware has not yet decided which route is best. But publishers, facing an uncertain paper and ink future, are experimenting furiously. Do their publishing contracts offer proper recompense to their authors for these new electronic versions? What protection do they offer authors against infringement? What will the download for free generation do with such literature? Once it’s up there in cyberspace control is lost. And because electronic publication can appear unreal when viewed through traditionalist eyes could it be that money won’t be earned on the grounds that this is all too new and too uncertain a venture?
This year (2007) the National Library of Wales is creating Welsh Journals Online, a major project to digitalise most of Wales’s twentieth century literary magazines. Not sample issues but entire runs, from issue 1 right through to number 327. No money has been made available for purchase of author’s copyright. In fact clearance of that copyright (i.e. permission to make the digital copy) will largely be left in the hands of participating publishers. Authors will be given the right to say no and not to participate but the reality is that most will want to be included. This will offer some of them an opportunity to see work from years past appear again to re-read and re-evaluated. Many Welsh authors write out of compulsion and not for money. Payment is a not that important consideration. For more information check here.
At Literature Wales we are concerned to Professionalise writing in Wales. In a society rich enough to pay for civic flowerbeds to be weeded and town centres to be illuminated 24/7 then authors should get something for what they do. In the whole digitisation process staffers working on the project at the National Library of Wales will be paid. So too the funders and Welsh Assembly Government and JISC. The operators of the internet servers on which the final project is to be stored will also receive a financial consideration, as will the owners of the telephone lines down which the information will travel and the manufacturers of the equipment with which users will access it. But the creators of the works being read, the raison d’etre for the whole enterprise, they’ll get nothing.
Complaining at this late stage is unlikely to achieve much. No further money is available to pay writers and, indeed, many will be so enthused at the prospect of their work reappearing that they would not want to do anything to prevent that happening. It is probable that a few Welsh authors will refuse permission either on the grounds that offering their work for free on the internet will lessen the likelihood of it appearing in future hard-copy anthologies or simply because they regard themselves as professionals and wish to maintain that status. But most will agree. Done deal.
The future, however, is something else. The digitisation of our literature is unlikely to stop at 2007. It is vital that publishers begin to include considerations of digital rights in their contracts and that periodicals seek funding to offer payment that might cover future digital appearance and that publishing contracts are created to address this matter. Literature Wales would be most interested to hear the views of the writers of Wales.
More information on copyright can be found on Literature Wales' web site here.
Peter Finch, 2007