Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Elected to IFRRO's Board of Directors

I’ve been elected to the Board of Directors of the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organizations (IFRRO). For the next three years, I will hold the sole seat on the Board reserved for a representative of journalists, authors, and other writers worldwide.

Although the name sometimes leads to confusion, IFRRO has nothing to do with abortion or reproductive rights. It’s the global coordinating and standard-setting body for “reproduction rights organizations” (RROs) — rights management agencies that license photocopying and other “secondary” uses of published written and printed works.

I was nominated for the IFRRO Board by the National Writers Union (NWU) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 140 countries. The NWU is one of the US affiliates of the IFJ, although the NWU also includes many other types of writers as well as journalists. At the IFRRO annual general meeting in Amsterdam where the IFRRO Board was elected, I represented both the NWU and the IFJ.

Enough with the alphabet soup. What am I doing on the IFRRO Board, and why should writers (or readers) care?

Technically, I’m a “substitute” member of the IFRRO Board, which means I can participate in Board discussions but only get to vote if one of the regular members is absent. Given the way IFRRO operates and its weighted voting, however, that’s of little consequence. What matters is that, on behalf of my fellow writers worldwide, I will have a (literal) seat at the table and a voice in what IFRRO does for the next three years.

As I told IFJ’s Executive Committee at their meeting in Brussels the weekend following the IFRRO conference in Amsterdam, it’s absurd to think that any one writer can represent the global creative diversity of journalists, authors, and other writers. But if anything helps prepare me, it’s my experience representing the NWU’s diverse membership — which includes not just journalists but also literary, academic, technical, and other writers in all genres, media, and business models — and trying to take into consideration the potential impact of US copyright laws and policies on writers abroad.

My nomination for the IFRRO Board is an outgrowth of my volunteer work as an NWU member on copyright policy. Since 2009, I have been the elected co-chair of the Book Division of the NWU. The title is a bit misleading, however: My real role has been in coordinating the NWU’s advocacy work on a range of issues that first arose in the context of scanning and distribution of digital images of books, but that affect writers of work in all formats and media: books, periodicals, blogs, Web sites, e-mail newsletters, smartphone apps, the content of electronic games and virtual reality experiences, and more. I’ve been involved in the NWU’s litigation and in lobbying at the White House, with Congress, and with the U.S. Copyright Office, as well as in other US and international coalition work and advocacy for writers’ rights.

Some of my friends and comrades in other civil liberties, human rights, and privacy advocacy work, who approach copyright policy from a public interest perspective, may wonder if this means that I have aligned myself with “rightsholders” against readers and digital libraries, or become a “copyright maximalist” who demands payment for every use of my writing.

Not at all.

I don’t call myself a “rightsholder”. I’m a writer. So-called “rightsholders” include both writers and publishers, but these two groups have few interests in common. In practice, the term “rightsholder” is used mainly by publishers and other corporations that want to cloak themselves in the positive public image of writers, artists, and other creators. To make matters worse, many of the companies that call themselves “rightsholders” don’t actually hold the rights they claim, but are publisher-infringers exploiting and profiting from rights actually held by writers.

By U.S. law and by international treaty, rights to written work belong by default to the writer/creator. The burden of proof is on any other entity, including a publisher, who claims to hold any rights to that work. Having published a print edition, for example, is not evidence, much less sufficient proof, of holding the right to publish a digital edition of the same work.

As I’ve written in other contexts, the real conflict of interest isn’t between “rightsholders” and readers, but between both readers and writers and the publishers and other intermediaries that want to insert themselves between readers and writers, control the relationship between readers and writers, and extract as much as possible of the value of that relationship, and the value of writers’ labor, for themselves.

I’m not a copyright maximalist. I don’t expect or demand payment for every use of my words. Almost every use of my writing is free, and I think it should mostly stay that way.

The U.S. Copyright Act and the Berne Convention (the fundamental international treaty on copyright and authors’ rights) don’t regulate “use”. They only regulate copying. Most uses do not require copying, and do not implicate copyright.

Anyone, without permission, can read any copy of my written work that they find in a bookstore, in a library, on my Web site, or on other Web sites. They can cite it, link to it, quote from it (within the quite extensive limits of fair use, which are wider in the USA than in anywhere else in the world), discuss it, criticize it, or use it as the basis for a parody. They can resell any copy they own, lend it, or rent it out for a fee without sharing any of the resale or rental revenue with me. (Many countries, including Canada and the UK, recognize a public lending right and require compensation to the author each time a book is loaned out by a library. But not the USA, although this is one of the few additional authors’ rights that I’d like US law to recognize.) They can use my work in almost any conceivable way except by copying it or publishing their own bootleg edition of it. None of these uses requires them to find me, contact me, pay me, get my permission, or even know who has written something that was published anonymously.

To believe that other people need my permission to copy or republish my work (and not for most other uses) is a minimalist position that preserves only the smallest vestige of copyright. Copyright is already defined more narrowly, and encompasses fewer rights, with more and broader exceptions, in the USA than in almost any other country in the world. US law totally ignores writers’ moral rights, for example, and makes enforcement of copyright dependent on prohibitively costly and burdensome formalities that effectively preclude most writers from doing anything to defend or enforce their theoretical rights.

My advocacy for writers’ rights is carried on within this minimalist point of view and this US legal framework. If I thought writers’ rights should be any more limited than this, I wouldn’t believe in copyright or authors’ rights at all.

Authors’ advocacy for our rights is focused on trying to gain some minimal ability to enforce our theoretical rights (at least in the USA, individual writers now have essentially none), and preserve our minimal vestiges of copyright against legal attacks and illegal rights-grabbing from all sides: legacy publishers, Internet companies and new-media intermediaries, and well-meaning librarians and public interest advocates who may not even realize that they are trying to take away working writers’ rights and deprive us of our livelihoods.

I’m a vocal advocate for funding for digital libraries: funding for the librarians, funding for the people who would build and manage the server farms, and, yes, funding to acquire the digital contents of those libraries. I don’t think that a digital library should be created by confiscating the fruits of writers’ labors any more than it should be built by conscripting the labor of computer programmers or librarians or bricklayers or any other workers.

Librarians, like teachers, do work that serves the public interest. We don’t pay librarians or teachers as much as we should, but we don’t expect them to work for free. Why should we expect writers to fill a digital library with their work for free? Opposing expropriation and unpaid forced labor is, I think, a moderate position that shouldn’t be controversial.

Unfortunately, librarians and public interest advocates are often unaware of freelance writers’ new and entrepreneurial business models — most of which don’t show up in library catalogs, which have failed to keep pace with crowdsourcing and peer-to-peer indexing and distribution systems — or the ways that writers’ livelihoods would be affected by well-meaning but unfunded digital library schemes.

If there’s a “dark side” in this debate, it’s the corporations, both old and new, that see digital self-publishing and self-distribution as existential threats. They are using “keeping up with technology” as the pretext for legislation that would suffocate the rapidly growing peer-to-peer economy of digital self-publishing and self-distribution, or straightjacket it back into centralized business models in which intermediaries that add no value to the writer-reader relationship can still control it and capture most of its value — to the detriment of readers and writers alike.

Not all of these issues will be directly under consideration within IFRRO, although they are part of the context of its work and my involvement. But there’s a lot at stake underneath the arcana of IFRRO’s activities, as discussed in these articles about my election from the NWU and IFJ blogs.

I look forward to working with all sorts of writers to advance our interests, and those of our readers, at IFRRO and around the world.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 30 November 2016, 19:07 ( 7:07 PM)

Notes from Amsterdam, Brussels, and Istanbul:

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 14 December 2016, 09:17 ( 9:17 AM)

Report to the triennial NWU Delegate Assembly on International Activities, 2015-2018:

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 31 December 2018, 09:17 ( 9:17 AM)

Unity in Diversity: My report to the triennial NWU Delegate Assembly, October 2021:

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 3 May 2022, 19:41 ( 7:41 PM)
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