Thursday, April 09, 2020

The "Catch" in Author's Monopoly

Cory Doctorow's March LOCUS column asserts, "A Lever Without a Fulcrum Is Just a Stick":

Lever Without a Fulcrum

The "lever" here is copyright law, the "author's monopoly." The article focuses on some ways the common practices of major publishers can use this "lever" as a "stick" to beat creators. According to Doctorow, broad copyright protections designed in theory to safeguard the rights of authors often don't accomplish that goal in practice if publishers' contracts demand control over the exercise of those provisions. Authors, particularly novice writers, usually can't negotiate changes in standard publishing deals; they face "take it or leave it" offers. E-book and audio rights, for example, are seldom left under the creator's control. This situation effectively strips the "author's monopoly" of much of its power. "The fact that the company can’t reproduce your book without your permission doesn’t mean much if the only way to get your book into the public’s hands is through that company, or one of a small handful of companies with identical negotiating positions."

Doctorow analyzes phenomena such as music sampling, record contracts, Audible (the audiobook provider), video streaming, and DRM in relation to the general problem that, "Market concentration at every part of the supply chain is conspiring to make life harder for artists." His proposed solutions involve rights reversion clauses, changes in licensing rules, and unionization, among other possibilities.

I might suggest that authors deal with small presses (both print and e-book) rather than the Big Five. Small publishers can provide a personal touch and, often, more flexible contractual terms. But, of course, the mammoth corporations offer bookstore exposure and high-volume sales; the latter are almost impossible to achieve online without strong marketing skills. Also, an author who feels she lacks the expertise, resources, or time to exploit subsidiary rights effectively might prefer to leave those outlets in the hands of a publisher with the connections and experience to do so for her. It's a puzzlement.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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