by James Gleick

This can happen. Your mail carrier leaves you an old-fashioned letter, and inside is news from the Authors Registry: we have money waiting for you.

Unexpected windfalls aren’t all that common these days for authors, assuming you aren’t E. L. James, but the Registry has been sending out a lot of checks, and if you haven’t got one yet, maybe you will. This is because, if you have books or freelance articles floating around out there, sometimes people will make good use of them and try to pay for it.

For example a professor will photocopy some chapters—or, more likely nowadays, scan them—for use in a classroom. Or a company will reproduce your work for its employees. The marketplace hasn’t yet evolved very efficient channels for making sure that payment for copyrighted work gets to its authors. Especially in Europe, though, a significant amount of money flows to authors through collective licensing societies.

That’s where the Registry comes in. Celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year, the Authors Registry was created in 1995 by the Authors Guild with three partners: the Association of Authors Representatives, American Society of Journalists and Authors, and Dramatists Guild of America. Its job is to distribute fees and royalties that were collected by others on behalf of U.S. authors but not paid out. This money comes from a variety of sources, nearly all of them overseas, such as the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ACLS) in London. In the Netherlands, LIRA collects payments for American authors from libraries under Public Lending Right. Also, American magazines can arrange to pay their freelancers’ electronic licensing fees via the Registry; Harper’s does that.

To date, the Registry has paid out more than $23 million, supporting itself through a small fee (currently 7.5%). A full list of participating organizations is here. Payments range from a few dollars to a few thousand.

So what should you do when you receive this unexpected letter?

There’s a small amount of paperwork. Usually there’s a W-9 form for the IRS, and a Collection Authorization, giving us permission to keep our commission. If the mailing doesn’t contain everything you need, please email staff@authorsregistry.org. Then you’ll receive payment quickly, within a few weeks.

But suppose—hypothetically—you don’t want the money? I know: many of you will wonder why I’d even bring up that possibility. But there are several ways it could happen.

First, you could be President of the United States. Barack Obama is the author of two excellent books (and I suspect they won’t be his last). When he got his letter from the Registry (surprise! you’ve got money!), he decided to decline it.

Or, if you’re an author who doesn’t need to make a living from your writing, you might have placed your work in the public domain, waiving your copyright. We entirely respect the desire of some authors to do that. The Creative Commons organization has a “No Rights Reserved” program. It’s a noble impulse. It does, however, come with risks. As the Creative Commons people warn: “Anybody will be able to use your work for any purpose, even in ways you may find distasteful or objectionable. They can also make money off of your work, and they may give you credit or they may not.”

Funny thing, though. Renouncing copyright isn’t trivial, especially overseas, and foreign countries might still collect money on your behalf. In that case you might still get one of our letters. For example, this weekend a Twitter user named Carl Malamud was apparently shocked to get his. He had a Twitter tantrum, which can’t be repeated here, and issued some unfortunate accusations that reflected his confusion. (Some of the abuse was directed at me personally; he seems to have found me on the Registry’s list of officers.) He’s a supporter of “open content” and wondered how money with his name on it could get to the Registry.

I’m not privy to his details, of course. The Registry will be able to tell him and give him his money or return it to the source, as he chooses. I do know, as a general matter, that foreign royalties often continue to flow to the overseas rights organizations until they hear from authors directly. The Registry serves only as a clearinghouse.

One more point about these letters. It’s possible, especially if you’re not yet an Authors Guild member, that there’s money waiting for you and we don’t know how to reach you. The staff is persistent and skillful, but sometimes people are hard to find. If you haven’t heard from the Registry and think maybe you should, you can enroll using this form.

Then, if a bit of money comes your way, you can decide whether to be happy or sad.