Last month, the Supreme Court ruled “that buyers of foreign copyrighted works may resell them in the United States without the copyright holder’s permission”. Wired Magazine reported: “The decision was a blow to the Obama administration, which urged the justices to side with textbook maker John Wiley & Sons. The bookmaker sued California entrepreneur Supap Kirtsaeng, who was reselling textbooks on eBay purchased overseas to U.S.-based students without the publisher’s consent.”
The logic behind the ruling is that copyright controls only apply at “first sale”. In other words, used bookstores, video rental stores, libraries and the like are not in violation of copyright. But bestselling author, attorney and Authors Guild president Scott Turow believes the SCOTUS decision has sounded a death knell to the livelihood of American authors, specifically “new and so-called midlist writers”.
In a New York Times op-ed entitled “The Slow Death of the American Author“, Turow writes:
Not only does this ruling open the gates to a surge in cheap imports, but since they will be sold in a secondary market, authors won’t get royalties.
This may sound like a minor problem; authors already contend with an enormous domestic market for secondhand books. But it is the latest example of how the global electronic marketplace is rapidly depleting authors’ income streams. It seems almost every player — publishers, search engines, libraries, pirates and even some scholars — is vying for position at authors’ expense.
I don’t know what the ramifications will be, but it certainly seems that recent moves by the government are focused on increasing public access to original writing and research for free or very low-cost. Libraries are now loaning newly released ebooks. The Digital Public Library, set to launch April 18th, will “make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives, and museums available to all Americans—and eventually to everyone in the world—online and free of charge.” The Office of Science and Technology recently directed Federal agencies to “develop a plan to support increased public access to the results of research funded by the Federal Government.”
As a reader, I think it’s amazing that new and original works are available to more readers for free or at low cost; but as a writer with a mortgage to pay, I feel there must be a way to cut writers into the deal, no matter how the market evolves as we charge into digital and mobile content. Turow uses Google’s ongoing litigation to surface books in search results to illustrate what’s at stake for writers:
Google says this is a “fair use” of the works, an exception to copyright, because it shows only snippets of the books in response to each search. Of course, over the course of thousands of searches, Google is using the whole book and selling ads each time, while sharing none of the revenue with the author or publisher.
Obviously, the debate will continue as we all try to find our way in this brave new digital world we live in. Last month, publishers met to figure out how to maneuver copyright laws in the online space. And literary agencies are busy getting in bed with Amazon. As writers, I think the only way we’ll prevent ourselves from getting shafted is to expand our mindset about where we fit into the food chain.
We’re so used to squiring away to create or fielding rejections from agents and publishers that I think we forget that we are the holders of the golden ticket. Without the stories to put on the pages or serve up via Kindle, iPad, ebook, etc, all that’s left is paper and technology. Last I checked, stories have outlived and outlasted every form of technology we’ve ever had.