NWU 3-Year Term on IFRRO Board Ends

[Meeting of the Authors Rights Expert Group at IFJ headquarters, Brussels]

The election of new members of the Board of Directors of the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organizations (IFRRO) at IFRRO’s World Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland, earlier this months marked the conclusion of my three-year term, to which I was nominated by the NWU and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), as the sole member of IFRRO’s Board of Directors elected to represent authors of written works worldwide.

What has the NWU accomplished over the last three years through our involvement with IFRRO and the doors that has opened to other international engagement? Has it been worth it? What remains to be done?

International activism is a long-term project, and much remains to be done. But we’ve accomplished enough in the last three years to make it well worthwhile, and worth continuing.

The successes of our international work for the NWU and IFJ are measured in raising consciousness abroad about new media and new business models being pioneered by US writers; building alliances with foreign writers, creators, publishers, copyright licensing organizations, and government agencies;  and advocacy for US and foreign authors with national governments and international organizations.

Consciousness-raising:

I was the the first writer from the US, and the first writer from outside Europe, elected to represent writers worldwide on the IFRRO Board of Directors. That has brought a different, previously missing, point of view to IFRRO, and has had a significant positive effect in broadening IFRRO’s awareness of the diversity of writers’ business models and economic situations. The impact has been felt not just in the Board room or in the meetings of the IFRRO author caucus chaired by the author members of the Board of Directors, but on IFRRO’s staff and general membership through discussions and presentations at IFRRO events.

Perhaps because there is less government support for literature and journalism in the US than in Europe, and fewer protections for workers’ rights, US writers and  our counterparts in much of the global South tend to be more entrepreneurial than European writers. We are more likely than are Europeans to earn a substantial fraction of our income from activities such as self-publishing that Europeans recognize as growing in importance but still regard as marginal, supplemental, or futuristic, not as normal ways to pay the rent today.

In addition, writers in the US and some other parts of the world (including regions where poor transportation infrastructure and other barriers make print distribution more difficult than in Europe) tend to be more aware of digital writing possibilities than our European counterparts, more actively pursuing them, and more likely to be earning money directly from digital formats, from revenue generating self-published websites to professional salaried or freelance blogging-for-hire to paid-subscription email publications. E-commerce and digital publishing have been an economic force in the US for a generation, but are still seen as “new” or “emerging” by many Europeans.

Why does this matter?

The importance and the value of my participation in IFRRO hasn’t been just that I’m from the US and not from Europe, but that I’m a digital native, most of whose income comes from work published only online, and based in San Francisco, the center of the Internet economy including Internet publishing in all its forms: the Web, apps, social media, email, etc.

If copyright licensing infrastructure and agreements (such as those coordinated by and through IFRRO and its members) or international copyright treaties and national laws are crafted for the digital age by people whose frame of reference is primarily that of the world of print, there are likely to be long-lasting and potentially significant unintended consequences not just for the growing numbers of digital natives, but for writers attempting to shift to new media and new ways of earning a living  as legacy print revenue streams dry up.

We’ve made progress. For example, after years of lobbying within IFRRO, including in Board meetings, we’ve begun working with the International Authors Forum (IAF) on a proposal for a session on authors’ new business models for a future IFRRO world congress.

IFRRO and international federations including IFJ and IAF will be taken as speaking for authors, including us, when they attend meeting of international organizations like the World Intellectual Property Organizations (WIPO), where copyright treaties that trump US or other national laws are negotiated. Will these federations represent us, misrepresent us, or simply ovcerlook us because we don’t speak up?

There’s still a long way to go, though, in recognition of self-publishing and many other aspects of the diversity of writer’s ways of making a living.

We need a seat at the table. As a result of our last few years of international activism, the international credibility and influence of the NWU are at a high point. But the NWU and its new-media and new-business-model members and other writers from around the world need to remain engaged with IFRRO and other international fora, to make sure that those who are already finding ways to make a living from writing in the digital age don’t become collateral damage from well-meaning efforts to save legacy print publishing or to address the global digital divide.

At the same time, collective licensing, especially for school and college copying and use of written work, provides a much larger fraction of the income of many writers in Europe, Canada, and some other countries than in the US. (IFRRO meetings are among relatively few places where the NWU regularly meets with our counterparts among both Anglophone and Francophone writers from Canada.) Most collective licensing is carried out through IFRRO members. The NWU and its members receive some of those revenues, but most revenues from collective licensing of copyrights in the US are paid only to print publishers.

In the USA, as with some other collective measures (health care, for example), there is much for us to learn through IFRRO and from European, Canadian, and other models about how writers could earn more for the rights our work, if we can keep those revenues from being diverted to legacy publishers.

Building alliances:

IFRRO isn’t primarily a decision-making body. It’s a forum for networking, coordination, and building alliances. There’s no other comparable venue in the world for everyone who makes a living from creating and distributing copyrighted “literary” works — writers, journalists, graphic artists, photographers, illustrators, translators, publishers, and copyright licensing agencies — to meet each other, learn from each other, find ways to work together, and find openings for discussion of our differences.

On the Internet, everything is global. As I noted when I was elected to the IFRRO Board of Directors three years ago, copyright is an international issue. The livelihoods of writers  in the US or any other country can be determined by policy decisions by international or multinational organizations, such as WIPO or the European Union, or by policy in any country that provides a jurisdiction of convenience for copyright infringement. We cannot afford to confine our concern for government policies to what happens in Washington, DC. And we need international allies to help protect our interests as US writers.

Our network of international connections, and our ability to monitor and respond to international threats to our rights and incomes, is far stronger than it was three years ago. The NWU is now recognized — as we should be — as a significant global voice in debates about copyright, writers’ rights, and the future of writing, publishing, and journalism. I hope that we will maintain and build on this strength.

It’s hard to predict where, when, or on which issues we will be able to make use of which of these connections. All can be valuable.

At the IFRRO World Congress in 2019, I was invited to give a presentation to IFRRO’s European Group on the impact of the newly-adopted European Union Directive on Copyright on non-European writers.

That IFRRO’s European members would think to ask what effect EU copyright policy would have on non-Europeans, or recognize that these impacts might call for changes in how an EU Directive is implemented within the EU, is a direct and significant outcome of our years of work at IFRRO as well as our years of work tracking the slow process of adoption and implementation of the EU Directive on Copyright:

On my trip to Europe earlier this month, following the IFRRO annual World Congress and a meeting of the IFJ Authors Rights Expert Group (to which I have been appointed for another three year term), I was able to meet with:

  • The member of the board of directors of the UK Copyright Licensing Agency (which licenses rights to print and digitally copy US works, often without US authors’ knowledge and with inaccurate information about who holds which rights to these works) who was elected to represent the interests of non-UK authors.
  • The unit of the European Commission developing policies for implementation of the EU Directive on Copyright by EU members.
  • The office of the US Intellectual Property Attaché to the European Union, which has recognized US writers as among the “industry” sectors  the US government has a responsibility to listen to and represent in its advocacy with European governments.

Shortly before my trip to Europe, I had an online conference call with the working group at the EU Intellectual Property Office that’s responsible for implementation of the provisions of the new EU Directive on Copyright related to “out of commerce” works, which is likely to sweep in many US works which are actually in commerce and generating revenues for their authors.

If we don’t speak up in these venues for ourselves and for the interests of US and other non-European authors, nobody else will. None of these entities had been contacted by any other US or non-European authors, or would have been aware of our concerns about the impact of their activities on US writers if the NWU had not sought them out. Each of these meetings came about as a direct result of contacts made through our involvement with IFRRO.

Advocacy for Writers’ Rights

In addition to our new European Union copyright directive work,  a major focus of  NWU’s advocacy is to expose and oppose the Internet Archive’s book-scanning program, carried out by the IA and its library partners  under the (misleading) banner of “Controlled Digital Lending.”

Scanning entire books, including recent in-print books, and putting them on the Internet, without permission of, or payment to, either authors or publishers, is an existential threat to the incomes of book authors. And if the Internet Archive and its library partners get away with scanning books and putting them on the Internet, they are likely to expand CDL to newspaper and magazine archives.

Book scanning in the US and Canada affects authors worldwide. US libraries acquire books published around the world, and have been sending them to the Internet Archive to scan and distribute online. Our international allies have welcomed the leadership of the NWU in sounding the alarm and speaking out on behalf of authors, publishers, and copyright licensing agencies worldwide who are all among the victims of CDL.

IFRROIFJ, and connections made through them were key to the NWU’s ability to assemble an unprecedented international coalition against CDL, bringing the pressure of international opinion and public shaming to bear on the Internet Archive and its library partners. IFRRO and IFJ also adopted their own resolutions opposing CDL and encouraging their affiliates around the world to recognize the threat it poses to their rights.

Never before, so far as we know, has there been such a unified global statement from all segments of authors and publishers about an issue of US copyright law and practice. We have a long way to go to bring about an end to CDL or its transformation into a permission-based system rather than a system of copyright infringement. But we stand a much better chance with the backing of such a large, diverse global coalition.

The lesson is simple: Alliances and solidarity are two-way streets. If we want foreigners to recognize the impact of their actions on writers in the US, as with the EU Directive on copyright, we need to recognize the impact of what happens in the US on foreign authors, as with CDL.

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