For authors in the digital age, with an ever-broadening set of interests and goals, the Authors Guild is no longer the only game in town when it comes to advocacy. On May 21, the Authors Alliance will officially launch. Formed in the wake of the Google library litigation by University California Berkeley law professor Pamela Samuelson (among others) the Authors Alliance endeavors “to further the public interest in facilitating widespread access to works of authorship by helping authors navigate the opportunities and challenges of the digital age." It will be also be a “voice for authors in discussions about public and institutional policies that might promote or inhibit broad dissemination.”
PW contributing editor Peter Brantley recently caught up with Pamela Samuelson to talk more about the Authors Alliance.
PW: Congratulations on the formation of the Authors Alliance. When are you celebrating your launch?
PS: We will be holding our launch party on the evening of Wednesday, May 21, at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. (People can register to attend here).
How are you distinguished from the Authors Guild?
I think the Authors Guild does a great job representing the interests of the authors who subscribe to it. My experiences on the Authors Guild v. Google and the Authors Guid v. HathiTrust cases have led me to believe that as well-intentioned as they are in representing vigorously their members, they hold themselves out as though they represent the interests of all authors, and in my humble opinion, they don’t. When it comes to something like the AG v. HathiTrust, the members of our organization are likely to think that it was a good thing that Google scanned books from research library collections and made snippets available because more people know that our books exist; more people are likely to check them out of a library, look them up online if they are available, or even buy the books.
If you're looking for one stark difference, we would not have brought that lawsuit. We think that Google has made Fair Use of these works. We think that the class action lawsuit they brought should not be certified as a class because they don’t represent the interests of the majority of the authors whose books were being scanned from the research library collections; most of those books were written by scholars, for scholars.
What are the goals of the Authors Alliance?
The Authors Alliance has both inward facing and outward facing roles. The inward facing role is to provide authors with information about copyrights, licensing agreements, alternative contract terms, the pros and cons of open access, the reversion of rights, and the termination of transfer. A lot of people who have works from 10 or 15 years ago that they want to make more widely available don’t necessarily know that much about copyright and licensing. In other words, “What are the options, how do you talk to your publisher about them, and what can you try to negotiate for?” We also seek to take advantage of the opportunities of networked digital environments that were not in place 10, 15, or 20 years ago when a lot of the works that authors want to make available were originally published.
An outward facing role is representing the interests of authors who want to make their works more widely available in public policy debates. We will launch with a statement of principles and proposals for copyright reform. To the extent that the Copyright Office or Congress takes initiative on orphan works or mass digitization, we will advocate for our interests and discuss why we think that orphan works, for example, is not just important to libraries, but also to those of us who do nonfiction research. When proposals come the table on these matters, we want to advocate for authors. Although libraries have done a great job talking about the importance for cultural heritage preservation purposes, there are some things that are not as important to them as to us.
Another outward facing role is working out which organizations we should ally with on these public policy issues. Depending on the issue, we might align with Creative Commons (CC), or Public Knowledge, or the Center for Democracy and Technology; there may even be some issues that we would want to form an alliance with the Authors Guild (AG).
What kind of authors are you trying to appeal to?
We believe that there are authors of all kinds of works who share these values. We think the big uptick in the use of Creative Commons licenses is a sign that it is not just academics that want to make things widely available for the purpose of promoting knowledge and culture; however, we understand that the first audience that is likely to find our mission appealing will be academic authors. Academics have the advantage of already having an income, and we share the value of wanting to promote knowledge and culture. We have also been reaching out to people who are not academic authors, like Jonathan Lethem, Katie Hafner, Kevin Kelly, and Cory Doctorow, all of whom have joined our Advisory Board.
Have you thought about working with author agents instead of just authors?
It would be wonderful to work with agents! They have a lot of knowledge that would be beneficial to our membership. There would be great value in being able to learn from agents that represent different kinds of authors, and to synthesize and make more widely available some of the insights that they have gained through their daily engagements with these issues.
How do you imagine the Authors Alliance working with publishers?
We all know that the Internet has been an enormously disruptive force in the creation and publication of information. It is upending many conventions, traditions, and practices that have had stability for quite a long time. We want to find ways to take advantage of these new possibilities, and have constructive engagement with publishers to find new ways to work together in a manner that will foster mutual interests. Donald Lamm, a past president of W.W. Norton, is on our advisory board, and has helped to give us a publisher perspective on some of the issues we are grappling with. We are seeking ways to improve cooperation and understanding.
What is the current structure of the organization?
We are a 501(c)3 not-for-profit. We have a Board of Directors consisting of our founders, and an advisory board of about 23 members. This information is available on our web site. We have an early web presence, but no offices yet. We have one research staffer and a lot of volunteer labor from our founders and allies. We have recruited a set of about 200 founding members. And our advisory board consists of popular authors and academics including economists, political scientists, classicists, biologists, and computer scientists.
How will the Authors Alliance sustain itself financially?
The University of California has received support from a U.K.-based fund to help us get started with research on public interest authorship issues. Both individual donors and foundations have expressed interest in supporting the Authors Alliance, and we expect these will be important contributors. We are also asking our Advisory Board members to consider making voluntary, tax-deductible contributions toward the organization. Over time we are likely to look towards institutional memberships. Fortunately, some of the founders have worked to launch Creative Commons, and we can learn lessons from CC and other not-for-profits that have managed to grow into sustaining organizations.
Can you describe your relationship with Creative Commons?
Molly van Houweling, one of our co-founders, is also one of founding directors of Creative Commons, and has served for many years on its board. There was a time when we had thought about forming this organization under the umbrella of Creative Commons, but we came to believe that we have very different missions. One reason we are distinguished from them is that many of our authors will want to make some of their works available through CC licenses, and some through more proprietary arrangements. We are not trying to create an organization with an orthodoxy that says you have to make everything available on an open access basis. We want to empower people to understand what their options are, and the pros and cons of those options, facilitating the dissemination goals of our members. We are pursuing the long-term horizon: it is part of our mission to think about how the public good can be served through authorship that makes works widely available.
Are you primarily focused on text-based material?
Text is where we are starting. We do believe that there are authors of different kinds of works that have the same dissemination goals, and the same frustrations. We hope over time to reach out to those communities. However, if we try to do everything at once, we may find ourselves too dispersed.
What sort of tools do you see the Alliance providing to help authors maintain their rights? Will you provide legal advice to individual authors, or review potential contracts, or might you provide model contracts for authors?
Initially, it will be information resources; things like examples of alternative language that authors might offer to publishers in negotiation, or options that might be offered to a publisher when trying to get rights reverted to an out-of-print work. We can also imagine working with the Internet Archive to help get works digitized where authors hold the rights.
I don’t see legal advice as a likely path that we would pursue. We want to provide information that will help people make better decisions about the contracts they are considering, e.g., “watch out for such-and-such clause… .” It is really an educational function; we are not going to provide direct legal services to authors.
I think a model contract is a possibility, although that won’t go up on the web on the first day. For example, after looking at a number of contracts for online courses and MOOCs, we see that a lot of them are really different, and some are more author-friendly than others. Having model contracts that fairly balance the rights of authors and teachers with the commissioning parties strikes us as something that would be desirable to do.
Do you see the Authors Alliance as an advocacy organization, with a presence in DC?
We will align with organizations that are taking stances on policy issues; we will be writing white papers, testifying before Congress, and submitting comments to the Copyright Office and other organizations on issues that of concern to us. Lobbying is not something that I would expect us to do directly. We want to increase awareness of issues, and provide information and perspective that might otherwise be missing in the conversation. We hope that by having an organization that can speak for our interests, we will solve a collective action problem that currently exists. We want to provide good information, sound analysis, and policy proposals backed up by rigorous research.