Meeting with the U.S. Copyright Office

On July 28, representatives from National Writers Union (NWU), the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), and the Science Fiction Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) met with a six-person delegation from the US Copyright Office in their offices at their invitation.

Our delegation consisted of Salley Shannon, past president of ASJA; Michael Capobianco, past president of SFWA; and Susan Davis and Edward Hasbrouck, co-chairs of NWU’s Book Division.

We discussed proposed changes to Section 108 of the US Copyright Act, which creates “exceptions” to copyright for libraries and archives. A Copyright Office study group that was created in 2005 came up with suggested changes that would expand these exceptions in ways that would significantly undercut writers’ incomes. However, there were no working writers in the study group, and these proposals are being considered without proper consideration of their impact on writers’ revenues, especially in light of emerging digital and self-publication business models.

We held two conference calls to prepare for the meeting and each of us agreed to take a topic:

  • How writers and other rights-holding creators are using their old work in new digital ways in order to monetize it;
  • Publishers don’t know how we’re making money on our personal backlists because they’re focusing on their front lists of new best sellers;
  • Precise definitions are needed of who can do research and use archival resources, especially if searches will be run by outside (for-profit) contractors; and
  • Creators having to “opt-out” of having their work freely redistributed by online “archives” will not work. The system must be set up on an “opt-in” basis for each online work.

The Copyright Office staff asked a lot of questions and took copious notes. Even though they had met with other creators’ groups, their reaction to our presentation seemed as though they had not previously heard what we had to say. We stressed that we were talking about freelance writers, and that’s why our members had to be creative in finding new ways to earn money from their work.

As the meeting ended, we thanked them for being open to what we had to say, and they thanked us for giving them a new perspective to think about. However, we have no idea whether they will take our message to heart, and try to incorporate freelance writers’ efforts to earn a decent living into their suggested changes to the copyright law. More legislative proposals from the Copyright Office are expected next year. Stay tuned.