The Case for Authors’ Rights: A View From Within

April 2014

By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO

The notable contemporary British poet, playwright and novelist, Maureen Duffy, shares her views on the challenges facing authors today and why it is important to defend their rights.

Maureen Duffy’s most recent novel, published in 2013, is a modern-day story of political and human folly. (Photo Credit: Nia Hughes 2013)

“To write is to write is to write is to write is to write…,” said Ms. Duffy quoting Gertrude Stein. “We write for the love of it, but we also need to be paid … we can’t just run on our love alone.”

The biggest challenges facing writers today are “getting published and getting paid,” Ms. Duffy said. Whereas in the past, the existence of many mid-sized publishers meant writers had greater choice and opportunity to get their works published, today, with the sector’s consolidation, a handful of international conglomerates dominate. “Publishers don’t give advances in the same way that they used to. Now, they say, you write the book and we will see if we want to buy it,” the author noted. Many smaller publishing houses have gone out of business and the few that have survived rarely have the clout to effectively market and distribute their works.

Within the evolving publishing landscape the Internet offers a potentially fruitful alternative means of reaching a broader audience, but is not without its risks. “Although the Internet provides opportunities for people to get their work out there, it doesn’t yet provide proper opportunities for them to be paid for it. This is an enormous challenge,” Ms. Duffy said. “Although digital technology can confer great benefits in ease of production and communication, that same ease makes it easy to pirate, to copy without payment, to distort and to deny authors any return from their investment of time, skill and economic support, or even any acknowledgement of their authorship which is a universal human right,” she added.

Expectations of free access to digital content are particularly disquieting for authors. “Why should the author be the only one to give for free,” Ms. Duffy queried, underlining the need, “to protect the creators so they get a viable share so they can go on doing what they do best which is creating.”

“There is a tremendous place for authors’ works online,” noted Ms. Duffy. “We’ve been through everything from papyrus to paper and now we’ve got the Internet which is just a medium. It’s global and that’s fine, because we all want to reach the biggest possible audience, but there is a danger of damage to the quality of what is being offered and to the sufficient return to keep creators creating,” she said.

While the rights of authors have been recognized in law since the adoption of the world’s first copyright statute, the Statute of Anne of 1710 (see box) the need to defend these rights is taking on renewed importance in today’s globalized and digitized world.

About the Statute of Anne (1710)

The Statute of Anne (formally “An act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of Copies, during the times therein mentioned”) enacted by the British Parliament in 1710, was the first statute to provide for copyright regulated by the government and courts rather than by private parties. As noted by the UK IP office, it introduced two new concepts, namely, that the author is the owner of copyright, and the principle of a fixed term of protection for published works.

According to the Statute’s Preamble, its purpose was to bring order to the book trade. It states:

“Whereas printers, booksellers and other persons, have of late frequently taken the liberty of printing, reprinting and publishing, or causing to be printed, reprinted and published books, and other writings, without consent of the authors or proprietors of such books and writing, to their very great detriment, and too often to the ruin of them and their families: for preventing therefore such practices for the future, and for the encouragement of learned men to compose and write useful books; May it please your Majesty, that it be enacted …”

What then, is the way forward? Ms. Duffy believes that licensing is the key to unlocking the conundrum. “Licensing is the only way of dealing with these issues,” she said. In this respect, the IAF is working with its member associations to ensure that there is an awareness of authors’ needs within the industry and that they are better placed to negotiate favorable contracts that offer them a fair deal.

Another possible solution, she suggests, lies in developing and applying systems by which internet service providers (ISPs) remunerate creators for the content they use. “I also think that as ISPs of various kinds make money from advertising by putting up free content, they should have to top-slice the advertising for at least the creators,” Ms Duffy said. “Otherwise I don’t see how creation is to be supported. If it was said firmly that copyright has to be paid for, in other words, if the three step test [see box] was really enforced, then we could go with some strength into a negotiation and say, whether you pay us from your subscription fees or from advertising, there has to be some return to the creators of content, if not you are violating the three step test.”

“Society needs author-creators culturally, socially, psychologically and economically,” Ms Duffy noted. An important challenge for policymakers around the world today is to cultivate the conditions that enable creators to earn a living from their work and to control its use. Only then, will it be possible to guarantee the continued development of a robust, dynamic and enriching creative sector for generations to come.

About Maureen Duffy

Maureen Duffy, a well-known contemporary British poet, playwright and novelist, is the author of 33 published works of fiction, including 6 collections of poetry, several works of non-fiction and 16 plays for stage, screen and radio. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and King’s College London, and a Vice President of the Royal Society of Literature. Her most recent novel, published in 2013, is In Times Like These, a modern-day story of political and human folly.

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