A couple of weeks ago Professor Jessica Litman delivered the thirteenth Annual International Intellectual Property Lecture at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. She makes the case that the copyright wars of recent decades have really been tussles between ‘old’ and ‘new’ intermediary investors; publishers, labels and movie studios vs service providers and online platforms. While the rhetoric used (particularly by legacy intermediaries) has typically placed authors at centre stage, the battles haven’t actually been about furthering authors’ interests – but about deciding how the pie ought to be shared between old and new investors.

Indeed, she describes how legacy intermediaries, when negotiating deals with new players, have often structured them to ensure they don’t have to pay any of the benefit on to the actual creators – as when the record labels negotiated for an ownership stake in Spotify, for example, or require an annual upfront fee for access to catalogs.

Litman believes it’s well time for the academic community to turn its attention to the copyright system’s effects on individual creators – a sentiment with which I (predictably) agree fully, since that is of course one of the primary aims of the Author’s Interest project.

Fair-Banana
We already do it for bananas, should we do it for books? Image by Bjerkebanen CC BY-SA 4.0

Litman is always a clear, thoughtful and stimulating speaker and I highly recommend that you listen to her talk in full. [Update: a text version adapted from that speech is now available here.] But first there is one element that’s particularly worth drawing out – a suggestion she made about labeling. What if, she asked, rightholders were obliged to specify the amount from sales and licences that actually went to authors? Right up front on the cover, or in the iTunes listing or on the online bookstore entry: something like, ‘On the RRP of $18, $1.80 will go to the author.’

Those of you who were at or watched the recent Author’s Interest event at the Wheeler Centre would have heard writer’s agent Alex Adsett talking about practices which see some Australian authors with UK deals obliged to accept ‘export royalties’ on their Australian sales. As Alex explained, those arrangements can deliver them as little as 20 cents per copy (about 15c US). I’d love to see a book stickered with that on the cover.

Many of us already rely on ‘fair trade’-type labeling to avoid purchasing exploitative products. Should we be demanding similar labeling from our book producers? Could that help encourage fairer contracts?

One thought on “‘Fair trade’ labeling for authors?

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