In the early 1990s, what we now refer to as the “digital revolution” first began to take shape as new electronic methods of information distribution and replication began to come online. The internet, document scanning, information CDs, article (and now book) databases, and so on all heralded the coming of a new information age that would challenge long-standing assumptions and traditional business models. Media corporations moved swiftly to protect and expand their interests — often at the expense of both consumers and writers.
The NWU, too, began to study and discuss how we as creators were being affected by the digital revolution. There were extensive discussions and debates on these issues at both the local and national levels. The result was a position paper titled “Authors in the New Information Age” co-authored by then-NWU Secretary-Treasurer Bruce Hartford and then-President Jonathan Tasini. This paper was adopted as the union position in 1993 by the NWU Delegate Assembly. In 1995 an expanded and updated version was re-adopted as the union position.
Essentially, the union decided that as creators we could not, and should not, ally ourselves with the media corporations who were striving to privatize and commercialize all information and culture under their control for their exclusive economic benefit. Instead we tried to strike a balance between the right and need of writers to earn a fair living for our craft and the right and need of the public to access, share, and use information. We concluded that commerce was the critical dividing line between permissible use and copyright infringement. That if someone is making money off of our work, we deserves a share of that income whether the money-maker is an individual or a giant corporation.
While much in “Authors in the New Information Age”, as adopted by the NWU Delegate Assembly in 1993, is now out of date, that crucial distinction is still valid today. Libraries do not turn a profit from the books and newspapers in their archives, a reader emailing a poem to a friend is not exploiting the author. But commercial databases, publishing houses, and search engines are making money from their archives and not a penny is going to the original authors. That is the issue on which we as a union of writers need to focus.