Notes from Compensation, Access, and Theft: Copyright in the 21st Century panel

Compensation, Access, and Theft: Copyright in the 21st Century, a Radical Reference panel at the NYC Anarchist Bookfair, Judson Memorial Church, 2011.
Moderated by Melissa Morrone.

Audio recording.

Imperfect notes:

Melissa introduced the panel and then invited the presenters to speak from the creative process out, and so began with the author, moved on to the two publishers, the librarian, and finally the copyright person. It should be noted that nearly everyone on the panel has written or is writing one or more books.

Vikki Law, author of Resistance Behind Bars: the Struggles of Incarcerted Women and editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writing from Women in Prison.

Vikki, who comes from zines—radical self-publishing—is motivated by getting political content into the public sphere, adding underrepresented voices to the conversation. She has also published articles and a book and compared the processes. Zinesters have total control, but with that control sacrifice readership due to also being responsible for distribution. Small publishers like PM Press allow for more control over a book's look and content than a large, mainstream publisher might. As a political writer, Vikki isn't looking for compensation in terms of money or fame. While she is getting some royalties for the book, they are merely a token if you count how many years she spent researching and writing the book, not to mention the prison activism that gave her the necessary connections with prison inmates to learn and share their stories.

Jim Fleming, member of the Autonomedia editorial collective

Autonomedia has published around 350 books in its 28-year history. Maybe 20 of the titles have made any money. Their policy is to encourage authors to make the books specifically anti-copyright. Their writers need to know ahead of time that they're not going to make money off the book. Just compensation would be nice, but if writers want to get paid, they shouldn't be publishing on the margins. In fact Jim doesn't think writers, or anyone should be paid for their work. He doesn't believe anyone should have to work at all.

Craig O'Hara, PM Press

There is literally no chance of making a living publishing or writing radical literature. Most of the work is done by volunteers. He doesn't encourage people to do this work without a desire to spread a message they think is underrepresented. PM Press does pay its authors royalties twice a year. The standard rate is 10-15% of sales. Occasionally there is a small advance. Payment contracts vary from author to author. They prefer to work with authors who work hard to get their message out, selling copies of the book themselves (at a large author discount, where the author keeps the sale price herself). They work with eBooks and authors with very different attitudes toward copyright. Cory Doctorow and Ursula LeGuin represent the poles. Craig is more afraid of stuff being ignored than pirated. He would be happy to look the other way at someone pirating his books if it meant the content was getting out. PM Press has never won a copyright case to his memory.

Aliqae Geraci, Queens Library, in masters program in labor studies, and co-writing two books for ALA Editions.

She began as a consumer of radical publishing, was a zinester and zine librarian, and worked in a radical labor library. She works with ideas, not products. She works at the library with the highest circulation in the country, which centralizes its ordering and doesn't not collect a lot of small press or radical content. Public libraries serve the masses, but purchasing and access models restrict what they ever get to see.

There is no such thing as fair compensation under capitalism. Radical authors need to have that understanding, vs. what mainstream publishers might say. How do we even define fairness or equity regarding author compensation? Do you base it on hours spent researching and writing, the purchase price, or [something I missed]? Radical publishers are rewarded with loyalty and trust. E.g., HarperCollins can't throw a benefit for itself like a small radical press can. Fair compensation centers on ownership, division of percentage, [something] of access.

Karl Fogel, Question Copyright

His background is open source programming, a copyright free, nonrestrictive zone. He was upset that he couldn't do the same thing with books as he could with software: modify and redistribute. is a site to help authors and artists understand copyright, and that copyright is unrelated to plagiarism. As an author himself, he publishes under a ShareAlike license. He was paid an advance by O'Reilly Media, has received royalties after books sales paid back the advance. He is now making money from book sales, which is also distributed free online and has been widely translated. The free publishing model worked really well to get his word out and did not affect his/O'Reilly's market. All books should be free, or perhaps sliding scale. Consumers should know how much of the purchase price is going to the author. Consumers will choose the distribution method that best rewards the author.

Question and Answer

Should Amy Goodman (for example—don't mean to pick on Amy in particular) publish with Disney? Does she owe it to/betray herself, her words, or her community by publishing with a large commercial press, rather than a small or radical publisher? (Jenna)

  • Jim: thinks publishing with Disney (Hyperion) was a mistake. Publishing with commercial press changes what you get to say.
  • Karl: idea that there is one publisher for every book doesn't have to be.
  • Jim: the small percentage of Autonomedia's books that have made money are all anti-copyright. Not compensated for foreign press translations.

To Vikki: How have you worked out copyrights for incarcerated women who contributed to your book? (Ellen)

This is not a copyright right question really. Vikki kept women inmates informed of her work. When she got the deal with PM, she asked if she could use their stories, their names, pseudonyms, etc. If they agreed to have their stories in the book, they got copies of relevant chapters for editing and had granular control over how their name was associated with the story and what elements of the story might even be included.

A question about the ethics of library purchasers. She can't buy directly from small press authors because they can't deal with her university system required purchase orders. She can purchase the materials from a vendor that charges $20 for an item that the indigenous author might sell them for a quarter. Libraries end up subsidizing this exploitative practice, but if they don't, then the author's work doesn't get collected at all. How should librarians handle this problem? (Melissa G)

  • Aliqae: only able to buy books from Baker & Taylor. Melissa's question is an ethical quandary.
  • Jim: need to get out of money form.
  • People also talked about faking the PO, which Melissa said wouldn't fly at her university.

Jim: Practical notes about authors and rights issues:
Print on demand can prevent a book from ever going out of print (which is when an author regains copyright)

Karl: problems aren't money, but monopoly problems

Is this self-exploitation a sustainable model for radical authors?

  • Karl: Most authorship is self-exploitation. He himself was motivated for reputation than profit.
  • Vikki: As an undergrad at Brooklyn College got access via ILL to a great wealth of books (unlike now via NYPL's unsatisfactory ILL program), but still couldn't find what she was looking for (about women prisoners' resistance), and it didn't exist, so she had to write it.
  • Craig: There is no money in any radical publishing endeavor. Our culture doesn’t value art, radical or not.
  • Vikki: Compensation isn't always monetary.
  • Aliqae: It is not always a choice to self-exploit. If we want to see a model where authors can eat and pay rent, we need to figure out a way to pay for it. Pay more for books, get involved with micropatronage, other funding models.

Can a publisher pay a non-US citizen to write a book?

  • Jim: not unique to publishing. After a certain level of payment, publisher has to report payment.
  • Audience: different for author vs. employee
  • Craig: pay authors, report it, whether author/artist does or not isn't their problem
  • Jim: $600 ceiling—companies don’t have to report payment if less than that

Monopoly vs. money problem—how best to counter monopoly on copyright

  • Karl: go to our website
  • Aliqae: libraries as access providers to large population groups, are risk averse. They will follow innovations, not lead them.
  • Karl: it happened in software, so we know it can work.

Copyright and access stuff protects information. Economics is based on scarcity. With information, more than one person can have the thing at the same time. Are there other countries that deal with compensation in a more sophisticated/fair way?

  • Karl: Maybe Cuba, they have a more liberal attitude toward copyright.
  • Karl: Use "restrict" rather than "protect" when referring to copyright issues. It will be more accurate and always grammatically correct, as well.
  • Aliqae: Other countries are ahead of US in providing digital access to public archives and materials. Closest we can come is the recently torpedoed Google Books settlement. France provides access to cultural heritage, supported and organized by the state apparatus itself. We don't have something similar here. Our state is not into cultural heritage. Google blew their chance.
  • Aliqae: Google tried to claim ownership over orphan works. But they would have provided one access terminal to use materials contributed by libraries worldwide. Google would have been tracking usage.
  • Aliqae: Right to read vs. right to reproduce.
  • Jim: HarperCollins after 26 uses eBook will self-destruct
  • Karl: that forces a surveillance society
  • Aliqae: librarians will stand up against the PATRIOT act, why not DRM?

Wishful thought: Google is going to give up on books (and should). Most Google Books are available from HathiTrust and Authors own the rights, not Google. It is hard to give away one's copyright. There are some means to make books available within more traditional distributions. (Ellen)

  • Karl: eBooks are books
  • Karl: Print books are expensive
  • Jim: paper, printing and shipping are largest expenses
  • Melissa: between 2002 and 2008 number of mobile devices increased 60%. Mobile devices serve larger, less privileged populations.
  • Karl: Africa is now wired. No one saw that coming 20 years ago.

What is the essence of reading experience? Does format matter? Does it matter in particular to the radical community? (Melissa M)

  • Audience member: people who are used to physically experience of reading a book. Next generation won't be as attached to it. Book can be packed into a computer, but not other way around.
  • Aliqae: a significant percentage of the population has limited access to the internet, eBook readers
  • Vikki: sold significantly more paper books than eBooks. How do you stumble across eBooks, as opposed to print books in a bookstore or library?
  • Jim: labor in book printing: printers, bookstore clerks, etc.
  • Craig: Amazon still biggest buyer, not Google and [?]. Costs are designing and especially promoting. Sell 50% of their books face-to-face.
  • Jim: Autonomedia has been resistant to advertising. [I think I missed the second half of this statement.]
  • Ka

rl: artist-in-residence Nina Paley's movie, payment by voluntary contribution. Average donation is $30.

We need to keep distribution in mind, dependence on internet service provider. The internet is not a neutral place (re: ebook reading and access). (Tristan)

There was one more exchange, but I was fatigued by then and missed it.

All in all this was a terrific panel, put together by Aliqae Geraci, Melissa Morrone, and Nicki Vance. It sparked a rich external conversation, and also a provocative internal dialogue. I'll continue to think about the issues discussed for a long time.