Sunday, June 9, 2013

Copyright Licensing and the NZ Society of Authors

I’ve had a few queries from NZSA members about why they have never received a payment from Copyright Licensing NZ, the entity formerly known as CLL, which exists to compensate authors and publishers for the copying of their work. CLNZ has an annual income of more than $5 million, they say, so why don’t we get any of it?

They ask me because I have been on the board of CLNZ for the last four years, so I know a bit about it. I sent one member a long explanation recently and am posting a version of it here so that others can read it. Also I am far too lazy to email everyone individually. So here goes:

What CLNZ does is sell licences to institutions so they may legally copy, scan and share printed material such as books, periodicals and journals. Terms and conditions most certainly apply. What has been copied by each institution is identified by sampling and the money due is paid out to the publishers who then pass on to the authors their share. (Yes they do. Anyone who thinks their multinational publisher is bilking them is, frankly, an idiot. Multinationals are squeaky clean – they have to be. The only publisher who has ever ripped me off was a much-loved small indie. Most of them are clean but, you know, count the spoons.)

CLNZ’s income is almost entirely from universities, polytechs and schools, in that order: the licence fee is based on the number of students. There are other sources – corporates, law firms, government departments, “private training establishments” such as language schools – but the main source by far is universities. So most of the work copied is from textbooks. Maths, biology, engineering, architecture, medicine, anthropology, history, philosophy, political studies, music, chemistry, law and stuff like that.

Very few members of NZSA would have books on these course lists. NZ fiction and poetry is taught at tertiary level, but it’s a tiny component of all the copying that is done. And (whisper it) NZSA does not represent all NZ authors. It does in principle – it argues for all authors’ rights – but it doesn’t in practice. One very successful publisher who always cleans up at the book awards tells me that of the 347 authors on the firm’s list, only seven are NZSA members. So it’s no great surprise that most NZSA members never see a CLNZ payment: they don’t write text books or general books that are used in university courses.

I received $15 one year but I don't know what for – possibly one of my joke books, possibly the more serious The Dirty Decade or An Affair of the Heart, very improbably my cookbook. And the reason I got a cheque that year but not the year before or the year after is that a different set of schools and universities are sampled each year – so if your work is used one year in just one school or university, that copying might never be recorded.

The sampling process is fiendishly complicated – the key point is the trade-off between accuracy and income. If the RRO (generic term for an organisation like CLNZ) aimed for 100% accuracy, the process would be so expensive that there would be no money left to distribute to authors and publishers. So we have to accept a degree of inaccuracy. The sampling process used is regarded internationally as best practice. I have attended the annual conference of IFRRO, the international organisation of RROs, and the intellectual firepower there is very impressive: the whole structure is as author-friendly as could be. What the current regime at NZSA doesn’t get is that the copyright holders – authors and publishers – are partners, not combatants. Over individual contracts, certainly, we can be combatants but not on big industry-wide issues like copyright.

Members of IFRRO have reciprocal arrangements, so much of the revenue generated here goes overseas to pay authors and publishers in the UK, US, Australia etc. Similarly, we receive payments from them, about $1 million a year. Again, most of these will be for textbooks. The share for literary works will be tiny. I don’t know, none of my business, can only guess, but I imagine that authors whose works are taught in courses on post-colonial literature – maybe Keri Hulme, Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace, Alan Duff – will do well, but the rest of us, not so much.

What remains available for distribution in NZ is, depending on the contract, split 50/50 between publisher and author, so while it looks as though CLL has a huge pile of money that should be going to NZSA members, it just isn’t true. Never was, never will be, never could be.

Another issue is that it can be hard, if not impossible, for some payments from overseas (looking at you, ALCS) to be identified as to which author’s work has been copied – anthologies and the like are difficult. Some NZ authors are happy to deal with ALCS direct; others will let CLNZ do it for a fee.

Final point: CLNZ is a non-profit organisation. NZSA is a 50/50 shareholder in it with PANZ, the publishers’ organisation, but the term “shareholder” is very misleading. It implies that the shareholder should get a return – but for a non-profit that would be illegal.

Sadly, for the members of NZSA there is no pot of gold.

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