We recently attended a presentation held by the Intellectual Property Research Institute of Australia (IPRIA) at the Melbourne Business School by Professor Ruth Towse of Bournemouth University, who, like the Author’s Interest Project’s Rebecca Giblin, is also a Fellow of CREATe. Professor Towse is an eminent cultural economist and has written widely about creative labour markets – and why they can sometimes lead to such poor outcomes for authors.
From the insightful talk and robust Q&A there are three key takeaways we found to be of particular interest:
- Some aspects of the digital world make it even harder to succeed as an artist. Creative markets have long been ‘winner takes all’, heavily skewed towards bestsellers and commercial works. But ‘recommender’ algorithms used by companies like Amazon, Facebook and YouTube can increase this concentration even further as users are directed towards top-selling content.
- Copyright contracts are key. The relationship between authors and publishers are (in Australia at least) governed almost entirely by contracts. These contracts govern matters like the term of the assignment or licence, whether it’s exclusive, and what payments will be received. Publishers want to protect their future interests by securing as much that they can get from authors.
- Remuneration is unlikely to increase anytime soon under current arrangements. Authors around the world earn less than the average income for people with equivalent levels of training and education (we’ve written about these dire earnings before). That includes all income, not just the income received from their creative work. In a financial sense, the amount of creativity bubbling around the world can actually be seen as harming artists. (For instance, more books are being published than ever before, and shelf lives for most titles have gone down from months to mere weeks). As Professor Towse put it, there’s an excess of creativity, and that’s putting downward pressure on income from creative labour. It’s also putting cultural intermediaries in a powerful position to take the lion’s share of rights – both via contracts, and via legal expansions like Australia’s 2005 copyright term extension, which overwhelmingly benefitted owners of copyright, rather than authors. If we want to change this situation, that might require legislative intervention to change the balance of power and limit what authors can be required to give away.