As the nation’s leading advocate for professional writers since 1912, the Authors Guild works to protect and advance authors’ interests by fighting for effective copyright protection, fair contracts, and freedom of expression and of the press. We engage in advocacy and provide legal assistance to writers to ensure they receive fair treatment and compensation for their published works. The Authors Guild has a rich history of working with Congress and the Copyright Office on copyright issues as they affect writers, and we look forward to continuing to do so in the 116th Congress.
Our 2018 Author Income Survey, the largest survey of traditionally published, self-published, and hybrid published writers ever conducted, reported a median annual income for all authors from all writing-related activities of $6,080—down 42% from $10,500 since 2009. Respondents who identified themselves as full-time book authors earned a median writing income of only $20,300—half of which came from their books and half from other writing-related activities such as speeches, teaching, journalism, and film rights. (Those median figures do not include the 20% of authors who earned zero writing income in 2017.) This means that many authors now earn below minimum wage on an hourly basis, despite very high levels of education: 52% of the respondents have graduate school degrees, and 86% earned a bachelor’s degree. The Authors Guild is committed to exploring ways to help working writers make a living wage, including through legislative action.
We believe that a diversity of voices and perspectives are critical to our democracy, and that literature is essential to the long-term health of American culture and in defining who we are as a nation. These goals can only be achieved by protecting authors’ rights to benefit from their work. As the Guild’s President James Gleick has said, “When you impoverish a nation’s authors, you impoverish its readers.” Our legislative priorities aim to restore some of the imbalances that have allowed major corporations to grow their profits at the expense of authors’ work. Unfortunately, U.S. copyright law no longer works the way it should to incentivize and protect authors so that they can keep creating. We need Congress’s help to fix those problems if this nation is to retain a professional class of talented, trained, experienced writers.
Our Legislative Priorities:
Ongoing Copyright-Related Legislation>>
New Copyright-Related Legislation>>
Federal Support for Literature and Literacy>>
Ongoing Copyright-Related Legislation
- CASE Act: Small Copyright Claims Tribunal
The costs of obtaining counsel and maintaining a copyright infringement lawsuit in federal court effectively limits most individual copyright owners from pursuing infringement claims or using lawsuits to deter theft of their work. This leaves most individual authors with a right without a remedy. For more than a decade, the Guild has advocated for the need to establish a copyright small claims court that would provide copyright owners with a low-cost alternative to seek redress from those who violate an author’s copyright. We worked closely on the bills introduced in the prior two Congresses and look forward to working with the new Congress on the reintroduction of the CASE Act in the 116th Congress to ensure it is passed into law.
- Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act
The Copyright Office was placed in the Library of Congress in 1870, when copyright industries played a relatively small role in our economy, so that the Library could use the copyright registration deposits to build its collections. Today, the copyright industries such as books, music, film, television, software, and web content contribute $1.3 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product, accounting for 6.85% of the U.S. economy; and it is no longer necessary to have the Copyright Office in the Library for deposits to be transferred to it.
The Guild supports the reintroduction of the Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act, which would make the Register of Copyrights a presidential appointee, with the advice and consent of the Senate. The President of the United States would select the appointee from a list of three or more individuals recommended by a panel composed of Congressional leaders and the Librarian of Congress. Ultimately, we would like to see the creation of a truly independent Copyright Office that would function similar to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Independence is needed to allow the Office to represent all the various interests related to copyright, advocate for the budget necessary to do its job and upgrade its woefully inadequate technology, and signify the growing importance of copyright to America’s economy and culture.
New Copyright-Related Legislation
- Enforcement Against Online Piracy and the Safe Harbors
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “safe harbors” for internet service providers (ISPs) have turned into an exploitable gold mine for corrupt online enterprises. The Guild believes that U.S. copyright law must provide meaningful protection and enforcement against widespread online piracy of books and journals which robs authors of income to which they are entitled. To achieve this, we believe the requirements that must be met in order to benefit from the safe harbor in Section 512 should be clarified, whether by clear statements in the legislative history or by amending the statute to clarify that service providers that foster infringement on or through their services and profit from it, including through increasing the value of their service, can still be held liable if infringement occurs. Some court decisions have allowed ISPs to profit from infringement and have given them no incentive to cooperate with rights holders other than through notice and takedown, a wholly ineffective and unaffordable means of addressing piracy for most individual creators. Legislative clarification would provide guidance at the national level.
- Early Copyright Termination for Out-of-Commerce Works
Under standard publishing agreements, publishers take exclusive book rights for the full term of copyright (the current term is the duration of the author’s life plus seventy years), subject to copyright termination rights under the law and often reversion rights under the contract, whereby the author can reclaim the book rights if the book goes “out of print.” The definition of “out of print” varies wildly, and publishers often refuse to give the author her rights back, or drag their feet while the author is trying to re-release the book. When publishers refuse to give rights back to the author, even when they are no longer commercially exploiting a book, the author loses potential income and the public loses out because the book is not available for purchase.
With such low book earnings today, many authors seek ways to supplement their incomes; one important source of income is the ability to republish their out-of-print works. Self-publishing platforms now allow them to do that easily and cost-efficiently.
Congress enacted Section 203 (and 304, which applies to pre-1978 works) to allow all creators and/or their heirs a chance to regain their rights 35–40 years after publication in view of “the unequal bargaining power of authors.” (H.R. Rep. 94-1476, at 124.) While this law is useful, 35 years is far too long to wait to reclaim rights that the publisher often abandons just a handful of years after publication. It prevents authors from keeping their works in circulation by republishing or reworking the content. The Authors Guild advocates for an amendment to Section 203 that would allow authors and other creators to terminate grants 10–15 years after the grant was made if the assignee/licensee has not commercially exploited the work within a year or more. An amendment to the law is necessary because of the unequal bargaining power of authors compared to publishers.
- Collective Licensing for Out-of-Print Books
Most books published in the 20th century after 1923 are still protected by copyright but are no longer “in print,” and relatively few early-century books have been issued as ebooks. While most of these books remain important and relevant today, and some include crucial information, public and university libraries tend to be the only places where print copies of such works remain available. Yet today’s readers, and particularly researchers, may not be consulting or reading them because they prefer the access and convenience of ebooks, the text of which can often be scanned for certain terms or concepts, allowing readers to go directly to specific pages.
In response, schemes such as Controlled Digital Lending argue that libraries should be entitled to digitize and provide access to these books online without having to obtain permission from the copyright owner (e.g., the author). Online platforms and libraries suggest that the transaction costs are too high to allow authors to be contacted individually and argue that digitizing and publicly displaying and distributing books thus should be fair use (under the misconception that older books have no value to the copyright owner).
In actuality, getting permission from authors is neither difficult nor expensive, but it is often argued that the transaction costs are too high to support the potential value to the user. When transaction costs are higher than the value of copyright licenses, Congress has been willing to step in and create statutory licenses and/or create licensing bodies. The Authors Guild believes that establishing a collective licensing program for out-of-print book rights would allow authors, publishers, and other rights holders to be compensated at a reasonable rate and at the same time pave the way for a true digital library, where full books could be viewed, not just the excerpts and snippets currently offered. Users would not have to negotiate and obtain licenses on a case-by-case basis.
Federal Support for Literature and Literacy
- A Federally Funded Public Lending Right
To ensure that authors and other creators can survive in the current economy, Congress should adopt a federally supported Public Lending Right (PLR), such as exists in every other developed nation. Public Lending Rights provide authors with micro-payments “to compensate for the free loan of their books by public and other libraries… uphold[ing] the principle of ‘no use without payment'.”
PLR could be managed and administered by Institute of Library and Museum Services (IMLS) and supported by federal funds. Under such legislation, the author of a book would receive a small payment each time a user borrowed one of the author’s books from a library as compensation for the public use of the author’s work. The amounts paid out under PLR systems are miniscule in proportion to federal spending, and yet are hugely important to authors to allow them keep writing as a profession. More on our support of PLR HERE.
- Increased Funding for Libraries and the Arts
The Authors Guild advocates for increased funding for the NEA, NEH, and IMLS, as they each contribute to the development and support of writers and literature, so crucial to our nation’s long-term economic and cultural health. The literary arts are especially important as they promote literacy, teach empathy and thoughtful analysis, and spark discourse—essential characteristics of a democracy. Literary works serve as the basis of many other forms of storytelling—theatre, film, television, and games. Still, our nation’s total funding of the arts and humanities is a tiny fraction of what other developed nations spend, especially on a per capita basis.
It is equally important to support public libraries; they connect people to books, advance literacy and lifelong learning, and serve as a source for innovative research. Indeed, libraries are the primary way many Americans are introduced to the literary and other creative arts and educate themselves.
- Income Averaging under Tax Law
Before the 1986 Tax Reform Act, authors were permitted to income average when filing their returns. Many book authors earn income mainly in the form of advances which comes in big chunks. Often an advance given in one year will serve as income for several years, and gets taxed at a higher rate, resulting in a large tax “hit” for the year earned. Income averaging is the fair way to tax those whose incomes vary greatly from year to year and should be restored.
- Collective Bargaining by Authors
The main reason authors, freelance writers, and other content creators (unlike TV and screenwriters and full-time journalists) do not have a union is because under current law, only employees are permitted to unionize and collectively bargain with employers. While retaining their copyright matters greatly to authors, their inability to collectively bargain puts them at a tremendous disadvantage, particularly given the vast disparity of power between individual authors and traditional publishers and other book distributors. The Guild hopes to carve out an exception to the law to allow independent authors to join together to bargain with larger publishers and other book distributors in a way that will benefit the industry as a whole.