Authors and Copyright.
The US Copyright Act grants to authors a number of rights, including the right to prevent others from using their protected content, without permission or a license.
Authors are at the center of the copyright equation. Without them, there is no creative content to be negotiated. Yet, it’s no secret that authors are at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to being compensated for content they create.
Usually the first time an author grants rights in her work to a third party, she gives a little away. And if there is no agent or lawyer involved, the author gives a lot a way without knowing it. The truth is, even with a third party representing the author, the author’s take home pay is practically nil, and she still gives up a lot. They often give up their copyright, along with the power to control their work in any meaningful way. They have little to no bargaining power in negotiating fair and reasonable compensation.
Why is that? Because publishers, agents, self-publishing venues (e.g., Amazon), online distributors, printers, all take their share upfront. Plus, those entities know that most authors are desperate to get published. This knowledge, in and of itself, gives publishers, agents, self-publishing platforms, and distributors an upper hand. They feed off the desperation.
Take for example the average traditional publishing agreement. First, unless the author has leverage, they are compelled to give up most of their rights in exchange for getting published. Even vanity and subsidy presses take a good chunk out of the author’s earnings, and in some cases the copyright. If it’s a best-selling author, they still give up a lot and receive a fraction of what they are worth. Second, regardless of who they are, the average author has no say in how their book is sold, to whom it’s sold, or for how much it’s sold. The publisher can sell the book to discount venues, such as Amazon and the author receives little to no royalties.
What does it take to change the tide? Mary Rasenberger, Executive Director of the Author’s Guild has offered some interesting suggestions. Among them are better tax treatment for authors, fair and reasonable compensation, and collective bargaining. The reality is for anything to change it takes an act of congress. With the president of the United States working hard to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), it seems unlikely there will be an interest in protecting authors rights.
The other catalyst for change can come from authors themselves. As a group, they can do a lot; they just don’t know it. As we saw in our most recent presidential election, a determined minority can accomplish anything.