What merits a rally? What calls for bullhorns and protest signs instead of just an angry letter to the editor? In this world of government sanctioned torture and fatal racial profiling, it’s sometimes hard to tell. Yesterday evening, for example, when Scott Turow spoke to a polite audience of writers at the Harold Washington Library on the “Rights of Authors in the Digital Age,” I wanted us outside, in the cold, warmed by the heat of our shared outrage. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a pithy, musical chant for Turow’s overall exhortation, that “the doctrine of fair use needs to be reexamined with an eye towards the digital world,” but I believe it’s worth chanting about. After all, what’s at stake is the future of reading and writing, or, as Turow puts it, “the transmission of culture.”
“Authors’ income streams are being rapidly depleted by the digital revolution,” says Turow. Basically, it’s getting harder and harder for writers to make a living—when maybe it should be getting easier. E-books are significantly cheaper to produce and distribute, and yet big book publishing companies are sharing less of the profits with their authors, not more, even as they have been drastically cutting back on the editing and marketing support they provide. Turow cites Harper Collins as an example, saying that it bragged to its stockholders about cutting author profits nearly in half with digital technology. A quick Google search turns up the exact numbers in an Amazing Stories article: after costs, authors get 42.5% of the profit from print books and only 25% from e-books.
And speaking of Google, it, too, poses a threat to the livelihood of writers, as do all search engines—by supporting pirate sites funded by advertisers, mostly pornographers. Do a search for “free Scott Turow book” and Google will lead you right to the pirates. Turow likens it to going up to some guy on a street corner to find out where you can score heroin nearby. Eventually, this guy, if he keeps directing customers to drug dealers, and he gets caught, he’ll get into some big legal trouble. But thanks to the “safe harbor” provision in digital copyright laws, search engines need not fear any such repercussions. Even worse, Google itself scanned and digitized 20 million books in 2004—and seven million of them are still in copyright. Sure, it only provides 250-word snippets of the copyrighted material, but that’s allowing it to make money that it does not share with either authors or publishers. Also, it’s taking it upon itself to put these works at risk. “If someone can hack the department of defense library, how hard is it to hack into these seven million books and release them into the world, eliminating that income stream for writers?”
Not surprisingly, Amazon is also high up on Turow’s list of culprits. By selling e-books at a loss and enlisting Wall Street patronage, it has been using the principles of the creative destruction school of capitalism to effectively, as Turow puts it, “club competitors into extinction”—including brick-and-mortar bookstores, which were “already limping.” At this point, Amazon sells 67% of all e-books and 64% of all print books sold online. It owns Audible.com, the world’s largest producer of downloadable audiobooks; AbeBooks, the largest online marketplace for used, rare, and out-of-print books; and BookSurge and CreateSpace, two of the largest print-on-demand companies. And it’s continuing to grow. “Just imagine if we had just one movie studio or one television network,” says Turow. “I freely admit that I’m a Prime member. But I don’t buy books from Amazon. They have competitors for underpants, but not books.”
This lecture, it wasn’t the collection of cautionary tales I imagined it would be—a list of common pitfalls to watch out for in publishing. We’re not talking about a few shady characters taking advantages of loopholes in the system; we’re talking about the whole system being abhorrently corrupt, rigged to sweeten the already-too-syrupy pots of corporations while starving writers. That warrants a rally, doesn’t it? Or, at the very least, a call to become more informed about intellectual property laws and to add our voices to the strength-in-numbers of the Authors Guild, the nation’s leading advocate for writers’ interests in effective copyright protection, fair contracts, and free expression. And if, like me, you’re up for chanting, how about: Corporations must be taught! Fair use here cannot be bought!
EVENT: SCOTT TUROW LECTURE ON “THE RIGHTS OF AUTHORS IN THE DIGITAL AGE” | TUESDAY, JANUARY 13, 2015 AT 6PM | HAROLD WASHINGTON LIBRARY | AN EVENT OF THE SOCIETY OF MIDLAND AUTHORS