Writers Union of Canada:  A Writers’ Bill of Rights for the Digital Age

10 October 2011 in Future of Publishing

I saw with interest last week that the Writers’ Union of Canada (@twuc), of which I am not a member (I’m a member of the Society of Authors here in the UK), has published on its blog ‘A Writers’ Bill of Rights for the Digital Age’. 

Here is what they propose:

To Respect the Rights of the Creators of Literary Works in Canada:
1.  Copyright legislation shall ensure the protection of intellectual property and appropriate compensation for rightsholders.
2.  Exceptions to copyright shall be minimized.
3. The publisher shall split the net proceeds of ebook sales equally with the author.
4.  The author shall retain all electronic rights not specifically granted to the publisher or producer and shall have approval of any modifications made to the work.
5.  The publisher shall not exercise or sublicense ebook publishing rights without the express authorization of the author.
6.  When a book is out of print in print form, continuing sales in electronic form shall not prevent a rights reversion to the author.
7.  For ebooks, the publisher in its contract shall replace the traditional “out of print” clause that triggers a rights reversion with a sales volume clause (e.g., less than a specified quantity of ebooks sold in a specified number of royalty periods) and/or a finite term of license (e.g., five years).
8.  When rights revert, the publisher shall provide the author with the digital file of the book.
9.  The Public Lending Right Commission shall provide author payments for electronic books and allot additional monies to this end.
10. Libraries shall acquire digital copies of works in their collections only from rightsholders or their licensing agencies.
11. Ebook retailers shall require the rightsholder’s permission for any free preview or download of an electronic work, and the rightsholder shall specify the maximum amount to be made available.
12. Agents, publishers, aggregators, retailers, and libraries shall ensure that works in digital form will be well protected and will not be shared, traded, or sold outside the boundaries authorized by the contract.

I think this is an excellent list of rights and it covers many complex issues succinctly.  There are a few things that seem to me redolent of wishful thinking:  ‘3. The publisher shall spit the net proceeds of ebook sales equally with the author.’  This can happen, and indeed I have had this happen with one of my books, but that publisher was unusually transparent about the costs of producing the book, as well as the cut the retailer would be taking, etc.  6 and 7 are both excellent, but ‘8. When rights revert, the publisher shall provide the author with the digital file of the book’ also seems to me to be… optimistic, not the least because if a publisher has invested in design, layout, etc for an ebook, the question over who owns that digital file is a little murky - obviously the writer owns the text itself, but do they also own the file that the publisher has paid to create? 

‘10. Libraries shall acquire digital copies of works in their collections only from rightsholder or their licensing agencies.’  Paired with 9 and PLR, this should work.  But there’s a larger question about libraries and digital files:  a library system only needs one copy of a digital file, if that file can be accessed across their entire digital network.  Publisher, libraries, and writers still seem to be pretending that a digital file is the same thing as a single copy of a book.  I think this is an area that would benefit from creative thinking. 

I love the idea of a bill of rights for the digital age, and its great to see TWUC taking a well-aimed stab at it.


Michael, 11 October 2011, 08:36 PM

Thank you for drawing attention to the Canadian Writers’ Union’s Bill of Digital Rights. The main thrust behind the Bill of Rights was protection of copyright (to my mind anyway). I believe the splits (with publishers on eBook publications) are secondary. Publishers and writers will all be out of business if we don’t figure out a way, fast, to stop outfits like Google and the big US universities (see the HathiTrust group) - not to mention the libraries - stealing our work. But, FYI, my publisher followed the Canadian Writers Union contract recommendation. Accordingly my publisher and I have a 70/30 author/publisher split for the e-publication of my books.

Kate, 12 October 2011, 08:19 AM

Dear Michael -

Yes, I agree, retaining copyright is the fundamental issue here and it is strange to live in a world where universities and libraries seem to be the ones who think breach of copyright in the name of ‘educational use’ is all right.  But that’s very interesting/heartening to hear that you and your publisher have agreed a 70/30 split - I’ve never heard of that kind of split, except of course directly from Amazon and Apple themselves. 


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