Friday 17 January 2003

The accidental socialist

Aaron’s Tips for Book Authors:

#5 Once you’ve recouped the cost of creating the book (and potentially the cost of writing your next one) please donate it to the public domain (i.e. give up your copyright). The copyright system was created only to increase the size of the public domain; please don’t cheat the public by taking more of it than you need.

It’s fascinating to observe in Rogers Cadenhead’s comments the nonchalance with which those who have never had a book published would abrogate the rights of those who have.

I can’t fathom this. People who would be outraged if employers suggested basing salaries on the cost of rent, food, clothing, and utilities, plus a small entertainment allowance, blithely demand that authors work for cost.

Is it the regular paycheck (or parental allowance) that engenders this attitude? Is it youthful idealism? Shaw was probably correct in suggesting that “if you’re not a socialist at 20, you have no heart.” But his aphorism concludes: “if you’re still a socialist at 40, you have no head.” In any case, I look forward to hearing Aaron’s views on copyright when he turns 40, or when he’s published a book or three.

This utopian idea that authors should write for love, not money, probably reflects the majority belief that writing a book is no more difficult than baking a cake. Yet I’m reminded of a New Yorker cartoon showing two people at a cocktail party. One says, “I’m writing a novel.” The other replies, “Neither am I.”

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Comments

Rather than thinking that writing a book is no more 'difficult' than writing a cake, perhaps it's that writing a book is considered no more *important* than baking a cake. As you say, no one expects a CEO to give up their salary after they've recouped the time they put in to earning, why would we ask it of authors. Why should writing be considered second class work?

Neverminding that most authors will *never* earn enough money for this proposal to even matter, I agree with that it's youthful naivete puffing its chest.

Still, as comes up several times in the comments you point to, an author making a living off of his work is very different from his progeny doing the same--no one pays a CEO's children a salary after death, either.

Posted by steve on 17 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I commented on this over at Roger's. I would copy the comment here, but I need to spend time working on my book. Work. Book.

As I did mention at Roger's though, I have to laugh about the idea of re-couping one's costs through sales of a book. Practical RDF has taken over a year to write -- I'd be delighted if I could re-coup the value of half that time.

I think this 'give all to the public good' fervor is becoming mob-like behavior, pushing one to give all to the commons without respect for rights of the individual. This is just as bad as demands that all software be open source. What's next? Restricting the amount each of us makes on our jobs? Restricting how much we can spend on houses, cars, new techie toys?

Sorry, Jonathon -- no aluminum PBook for you, you've had your allotment in tech this year. The rest of your money must go for the common good.

Bah. Excuse me, I have to go bake a ca...urh, work on the book.

Posted by Burningbird on 17 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Maybe this is a proposal (I could live with):
Copyright should apply only to the original creator, and by no means be transferable.

Posted by Martin on 18 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Martin, no publisher would touch this with a ten foot pole. As it is, most are quite good -- once the book is no longer in print, the copyright usually reverts back to the author to do with what they will. O'Reilly is this way, if I remember correctly from my contract.


Posted by Burningbird on 18 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

> no publisher would touch this with a ten foot pole

Hmmm, right. The publisher wants some kind of protection (so I don't go out and re-publish somewhere else while their still printing etc.)

My thinking came more from the way of comic-indusrty and such... where a artist seldom actually owns anything of her creation... Which is very-not in the sense of copyright IMHO.

Maybe I'm mixing intelectual property and copyright, but I'd very much like to see a better protection of creators, and less 'rights' for distributors...

Maybe creator and distributor can agree on a limited-time exclusive right to publish, while the creator retains copyright.

I guess the way book-publishers handle this is very good already (the rights falling back to author after they stop printing the book)

Posted by Martin on 18 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I can't fathom this. People who would be outraged if employers suggested basing salaries on the cost of rent, food, clothing, and utilities, plus a small entertainment allowance, blithely demand that authors work for cost.

That's not what he said at all. He said that the author should release the work to the public domain. This doesn't mean that you stop making profit off of the book, it means that other people are also allowed to amke a profit on it. It's that simple.

Posted by Eric Vitiello on 18 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

For my first book I was conned into signing my copyright over on a one-off fee contract. At the time I thought that it was reasonable considering the proposed print run, and on top of the fee all expenses had been paid.

However, I was unaware of future plans. The book has since sold an estimated 300,000 copies worldwide and 20 years later is still in print in Australia and Germany.

My fee -- $US6000.

I made more from my later books, but their print runs never exceeded 25,000.

Copyright is indeed a strange beast.

Martin suggests:

Maybe creator and distributor can agree on a limited-time exclusive right to publish, while the creator retains copyright.

and

I guess the way book-publishers handle this is very good already (the rights falling back to author after they stop printing the book)

Neither scenario would have helped me. And if they stop printing a book, it means they've milked the market for what its worth.

My suggestion is to retain your personal copyright for your words, photographs and/or art, negotiate a good royalty, and then help promote the hell out of your book. Here I am talking about non-fiction books and personal experience.

Posted by Allan Moult on 18 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

if employers suggested basing salaries on the cost of rent, food, clothing, and utilities, plus a small entertainment allowance

Where do I sign up? This sounds like a grate contract, If I could get my employer to pay _rent plus clothing plus utilities plus entertainment_ ! I would not be in the crap I am. Sounds like a fantastic deal to me. Hell I'd settle for rent, food, clothing, and utilities. Entertainment is a perk. Just rent and food would be good!

Posted by Marc on 18 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Shelley's right that many publishers offer rights-reversion clauses, but actually getting the rights back is more and more difficult. Declaring books out-of-print used to make sense because publishers could stem returns that way (at least putting a time limit on them), but now more publishers are content to declare that an electronic version that rarely sells amounts to keeping it in print. Beyond that, most businesses set up the mechanisms for giving things back to operate pretty slowly, and rights reversions are no different. I've yet to get formal reversion on the rights to any of my books from either of my publishers who've stopped distributing them.

More interestingly, though, it's odd to me that the publishing business effectively sets up writers as capitalists (sometimes with an advance as offset) than as laborers getting wages. Some days I like that notion, some days it seems very strange. Somehow, telling an author that we're sharing risk seems better to me than just paying them and absorbing the risk ourselves, but I have to confess that I'm not sure why I feel that way or if I like the consequences.

Perhaps worst of all, it leads some publishers into things like cross-accounting clauses that minimize their risk while they tell the same story. I'm very happy that O'Reilly doesn't do that, both as an author and as an employee.

If anything, I guess this makes me an accidental capitalist, though god knows I'd like to give a lot more away than I've been able to so far.

Posted by Simon St.Laurent on 18 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Eric -- "He said that the author should release the work to the public domain. This doesn't mean that you stop making profit off of the book, it means that other people are also allowed to make a profit on it. It's that simple."

True, but once you release a book into the public domain, the people with the best marketing and distribution system will make all the sales. If a book goes into the public domain tomorrow, and both Penguin and (the hypothetical) Coyote Butt Press of Missoula, Montana bring out editions, who do you think is going to make money off the book? Will Barnes and Noble stock both editions? At least now, a small press has a (miniscule) chance at doing well by looking very hard for unknown works and taking risks on them. If it were all in the public domain, Penguin could just sit back, let Coyote Butt take the chances, then, when they find something that looks like it's doing well, bring out their own edition and bury the tiny competition. It would just entrench the existing publishers more deeply.

Posted by Pete on 18 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Steve, I've always supported the idea of copyright extending beyond the author's lifetime, but your argument that "no one pays a CEO's children a salary after death" is persuasive.

Shelley, what comes across so clearly from the comments of those who would so generously give away the profits of other people's work is that they have no idea of the amount of work that goes into creating anything of lasting value.

Martin wrote: "I'd very much like to see a better protection of creators, and less 'rights' for distributors..."

My position in a nutshell. The current copyright period in the US depends on when the work was published but it's either "life plus 70 years" or "life plus 70 years or until December 31, 2047, whichever is the greater." I'd be happy if this was reduced to the lifetime of the author (thus addressing Steve's point).

Eric Vitiello wrote: "He said that the author should release the work to the public domain. This doesn't mean that you stop making profit off of the book, it means that other people are also allowed to make a profit on it. It's that simple."

Eric, once other people are allowed to make a profit on my book, my profit plummets. Perhaps you could explain in simple terms how that is in my interest? It's extraordinary that you seem to expect creative artists to subsidize the entertainment and enlightenment of those who offer little or nothing of value in return.

Allan, that would have been a steady little earner that would almost certainly enabled you to undertake a variety of other creative projects.

Marc, why don't you find 20 or 30 million other employees willing to work under those conditions? Then you can start a political party (or maybe an anti-trade-union) and work to bring your dream to fruition.

Simon, I'd like to give a lot more away than I've been able to so far. But experience tells me that it would be prudent to wait until such "giving" becomes the rule rather than the exception. Currently it's only writers who are being asked to give. Let's not hold our breath while we wait for the non-writers to join the giving-fest.

Pete, the big-press/small-press example is an excellent one. Thanks.

Posted by Jonathon on 18 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon writes:
"Let's not hold our breath while we wait for the non-writers to join the giving-fest."

In my field (XML), there's plenty of giving going on. Programs, formats, etc. Not that everyone's doing it, certainly, but there's already a potlatch in progress. It also seems to be a community where some degree of giving is expected, and where claims like "you can't use my markup unless you pay me a licensing fee" face more laughter than violence.

Posted by Simon St.Laurent on 19 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I agree with Aaron that the purpose of copyright and patent is to enlarge the public domain. I also note that it is unfair to represent Aaron's proposal as "working for cost". He says that authors should act as if they expect no more than to recoup costs of the present book AND an additional amount sufficient to pay all living expenses for a year or two, during which time the author will prepare the next book. He doesn't even say that the author's additional amount should be calculated on the basis of a frugal style of life.

Jonathon's comment to Eric that " It's extraordinary that you seem to expect creative artists to subsidize the entertainment and enlightenment of those who offer little or nothing of value in return, " betrays an unseemly attitude. In copyright, it is the public that "subsidizes" authors by sacrificing the margin of its free expression and free trade rights to the author for a time. But even if we overlook that fact, it is wrong to say that the non-writing public "offers nothing of value" to our literary culture. The public, after all, are the buyers of books. The public, through its goverment and taxes, builds shools in which children learn to read and write. These children grow up to become buyers and, in some cases, writers of books.

Even so, I think Aaron's proposal is unrealistic. The ridiculously long copyright terms in our present law are the legal regime in which authors work, and are part of what form people's expectations. People aren't very likely to drive at 50 Mph when the posted speed limit is 70 Mph, however reasonable or well-intended may be an appeal to them to do so. What is needed is a reduction in the statutory term. As long as our law contains the ridiculously long terms it now has, I won't find fault with any author for responding to Aaron's appeal and renouncing some of his future copyright privileges. Neither will I find fault with any author for not doing so. My attitude to those who propose additional extensions of the statutory copyright term will, however, be quite negative.

Posted by Timothy Phillips on 19 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Timothy, you are correct in pointing out that the public makes a valuable contribution to writing culture by purchasing books and by paying taxes that buy books for libraries and enable children to learn to read.

My reference to "those who offer little or nothing of value in return" was directed not at those who read books and pay taxes but rather at those who, because they are unable to write themselves, demand that they should be allowed a share of the proceeds of an author's labor. As in: "This doesn't mean that you stop making profit off of the book, it means that other people are also allowed to make a profit on it."

I accept, however, that my remark could have been construed in the manner you criticize. As for it being "unseemly," I can only offer in return a wry smile, given the hostility you display towards writers and artists in your comments on Burningbird's post, "Outweigh the rights of many":
http://weblog.burningbird.net/fires/000832.htm

Posted by Jonathon on 19 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, you wrote: "My reference to "those who offer little or nothing of value in return" was directed not at those who read books and pay taxes but rather at those who, because they are unable to write themselves, demand that they should be allowed a share of the proceeds of an author's labor."

I believe these entities are called "publishers".

Seriously, though, the whole point of civilization is that we benefit from one another's labor. It is not wrong in all cases without exception to expect society to have a common life.

Nothing I wrote on Shelley's comment board can fairly be styled "hostility to writers and artists". I did express what might be called "hostility" to the European conception of a "moral right" of author which (as I read) in some cases allows the artist-seller to dictate to the buyer how the physical copy incorporating the intangible product will be used, even in the privacy of the buyer's own house.

If you disagree, contact me off-list and we can continue the discussion.

Posted by Timothy Phillips on 20 January 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour