Reprinted from the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin.
Before I became a member of the Authors Guild, which was many years ago, I remember being surprised to learn there even was such a thing. A guild—of authors? With such a medieval name! But as a new author, I was eager to join what I took to be a league or association or fellowship of scribblers looking out for one another’s interests.
Which is what we are, of course.
Is that enough? Sometimes people wonder how the Authors Guild defines itself: whether we have a mission statement (we do: www.authorsguild.org/who-we-are), or whether our mission statement is comprehensive enough, or simple enough, or assertive enough, or appealing enough, or . . . Personally, I mistrust mission statements. Authors have different needs. We are nothing if not diverse. Even the same author at different times is diverse. I don’t mind if the Authors Guild means different things to different people.
Furthermore, we are changing. If for no other reason than because everything else is changing. So rather than come any closer to saying something definitive about who we are and what we do, in this, my first letter to you as president, I would prefer to ask some questions.
What is an author nowadays? Anyone who has published a book? Does it matter whether the publisher is an international conglomerate or the selfsame author? Does it matter whether the book is printed on paper or transmitted electronically? Is a blogger an author? Would your answer be different if instead of “blogger” I said online essayist (or historian or science writer)?
Should the Authors Guild represent all of the above, without making distinctions?
You’re probably aware that from time to time we gather information from our members by conducting surveys — multiple-choice questionnaires. These are useful, but they are crude instruments. I’m inviting you to give me something outside that box. If you’re so moved, please write me directly, either by e-mail, or the old-fashioned way at 31 East 32nd Street, New York, NY 10016.
I’m eager to know (we’ve been thinking a lot about this lately) how our members feel we should allocate our resources between advocacy — lobbying in Washington and in statehouses, championing free speech and copyright — and meat-and-potatoes services, such as member websites, contract review, seminars and other events. “All of the above” is a valid answer, but perhaps you want to see more of something in particular.
Speaking of copyright: this is surely our single most complicated and changeable issue nowadays. (Even freedom of expression is more straightforward, and there’s nothing simple about that.)
Perhaps coincidentally, two different technology writers just published essays revisiting the Google Books program and the Authors Guild’s lawsuit against it. A week after Scott Rosenberg’s article “How Google Book Search Got Lost” appeared on Backchannel, James Somers’s “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria” arrived in The Atlantic Both writers explore a sense that Google’s project has failed to live up to its early promise.
Famously, the Authors Guild fought a 10-year legal battle, arguing that digitizing books without asking authors for permission violated their copyrights. Google argued that this kind of digitization represented a new kind of “fair use.” Ultimately, the federal appeals court in New York ruled for Google, and the Supreme Court wouldn’t hear the Guild’s appeal. Google is free to keep its copies. It is not, however, free to display more than brief snippets of the books — so if we want to see a modern-day library of Alexandria, it’s going to have to happen some other way.
We have some ideas about how that can be accomplished. You may recall that the twists and turns of the Google suit included a proposed settlement. Google agreed to pay authors millions of dollars, and the authors agreed to allow books to be made available online in their entirety — not free for everyone, but with some control over their licensing. The settlement was imperfect, a compromise, as settlements are, and the court wouldn’t allow it. Still, we believe it provides a template for how a true digital public library could work.
Which brings me to another set of questions.
Libraries lend e-books more and more, and as a rule, they do that by buying licenses from the publishers. But they also want to lend electronic versions of books that have gone out of print, and that’s not so easy. If any of your books are out of print, would you want to allow libraries to digitize them and lend them? What sort of compensation would you consider fair?
Some people think that when a book goes out of print it ought to enter the public domain — free for all — unless the author actively re-registers the copyright. Would you consider that burdensome or fair?
Right now, the copyright in a work lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. People contemplating digital libraries see that as a nuisance. They want the copyright term to be a lot shorter. What do you think? What’s your idea of an appropriate term for copyright, and how important is it to you?
Please let us know your thoughts on this.