Calling All Readers and Writers!

21 Feb

 

Some of you who read this blog may also see my DeepEnd page or my author’s page on FaceBook and so may already know about the issue that is the focus of this post. But to others of you what I am writing about today may come as news (and probably also a shock, as the discovery was to me).

Many, if not most of you who follow this blog are readers; some of the children and the adults in the highly to profoundly gifted population may also write, or may one day want to write books. And all of you use “devices” and the internet, of course, or you wouldn’t be reading this. I assume most of you frequent libraries as well. So the convergence of books, readers and writers, libraries, and the internet is no doubt important to you.

For the last 40 years I have made my living, such as it is, mostly from being a writer, and mostly writing fiction for kids and young adults, though I also, of course, write nonfiction, both books and articles (plus FB and blog posts) about the gifted. In the image above the top shelf has my fiction and the lower shelf has books I have chapters or stories in, my nonfiction books, some translations and some plays. Physical copies! And all indubitably “mine.”

A few weeks ago, the Authors Guild, of which I’ve been a member for decades, advised its members to check something called Open Library, to see if it was making any our work freely available without our permission, in violation of our copyrights. In those weeks I have learned a great deal, most if which is deeply disturbing, which is why I’m writing this post.

On Open Library I found two serious problems—one was that about a dozen of my books, seven of which are still in print and available for sale, were there for downloading (so-called “borrowing”) for free. On “my page” two of my books were listed as having a co-author named Alex Hill. I had no idea who this person might be—certainly not a co-author. I clicked on his name and was taken to a page where I found the second serious problem. ALL of my books published before 2008, both fiction and nonfiction—including Guiding the Gifted Child, in English and in German, which I wrote with Elizabeth Meckstroth and James Webb,—and including a play, “Bridge To Terabithia,” which I wrote with Katherine Paterson and Steve Liebman. Nowhere on this other page could my own name be found. Everything there was simply listed as “By Alex Hill.”

I contacted Open Library and demanded that they take down from “my page” at least the seven books still in print, and in a second communication demanded that they take every one of my books off “Alex Hill’s page.” They complied with this second demand within 24 hours. It took another day before I got the message that they had taken all of my books down as ebooks for borrowing from my own “page” on their site.

So began my journey through the vast and (for me at least) horrifying world of digital copying. I had not known that my books were available this way, which means my permission was not sought before Open Library’s “parent organization,” Internet Archive had my books scanned and made them available through O.L. for download to anyone who has internet access.  

Once Alex Hill was no longer being credited as the author of my books, I asked how this massive “error” could have been made, and Open Library’s answer to me was that the site is a wiki, explaining that anyone—ANYONE—can change its “metadata” at will. And although they have claimed to me that there is no way the content of a scanned book can be changed by anyone once it has been made available on the site [though the author’s name could be changed any time by anyone apparently] I have reason not to believe them about content, because apparently users can also scan books and have them included in this “catalog,” which is what they call Open Library. They thought this information that they’re a wiki should somehow comfort me. Not! My son discovered that the change of author’s name was done by a “rename bot”—and he thinks the bot could have been created and unleashed “accidentally.” This also does not comfort me. Unlike Wikipedia, Open Library doesn’t have hoards of people passionately trying to make sure the material there is accurate.

The original concept for Internet Archive was a noble one—to scan books that are in the public domain and/or historical documents so that people anywhere could freely access them. But Open Library went vastly beyond that mission and began just scanning any books they could buy or get donated (many, many of which are donated) and putting them up, without asking the author’s permission. 

Copyright exists as a protection against unauthorized copying! There are well over 100,000 public “town libraries,” to say nothing of school and university libraries. These “brick and mortar libraries” buy books or contract for ebooks with the publisher, paying either for the ability to lend them a specific number of times or for a specified period of time. Open Library has no such limitations, though they claim otherwise. 

It’s true that some writers get very wealthy (Stephen King says writing makes him a “good living,”—Yes!) But a recent Author’s Guild survey determined that the average yearly income for a writer is around $20K. The standard contract with a hard cover publisher gives the author a 10% royalty on each book sale. That percentage may go up higher if sales reach certain sales targets. And for ebooks, though all other “subsidiary rights” are standardly shared 50/50 between author and publisher, the ebook percentage for the author is (also standardly) only 25%.

Writers’ incomes have been falling steadily for a decade. Surprise? Every writer I have told to check Open Library has found many, most or all of their books available there, always without permission and most often while still in print. Internet Archive began in 2006 and most of us didn’t know it. Open Library, apparently started four years later, also went unknown from the authors whose work they were illegally scanning. They claim this right to scan whole works under a theory they call “Controlled Digital Lending” (CDL) but it is not actually either “controlled,” or “lending.”

I’m not writing here to bemoan my own loss of royalty income, though that clearly does count some for me. I’m writing here because the ability to scan any book and put it up on line is threatening the entire system of written works and the sharing thereof. Brick and mortar libraries serve a geographical location and people in their area who have library cards—Open Library can reach an infinite number of computer users anywhere in the world, and give them the books. While O.L. claims books are loaned one at a time and for a specified period, in the FAQ published (link below) by opponents of this theory, that claim is shown to be untrue. At the end of the specified time period a “borrower” can’t send the book back to O.L. the way you take the physical book back to the library. It is still in their computer’s cache if they wish to keep it. And each ebook “sent” is a separate file, of which O.L. can make an unlimited number.

Our super bright kids are digitally literate, and this technology has brought many great opportunities into the world, but the“piracy” situation of CDL genuinely threatens anyone’s ability to make a future living writing books—of any kind—so that it threatens not only the kids’ own futures as writers, should they want to choose that path, but also the variety of books that will be available to them. Eventually only the most popular, the most famous, the most mainstream or the most infamous writers would be left creating new works, either of fiction or nonfiction. BTW, I’ve checked the nonfiction works of many writers about the gifted and–surprise–they’re on Open Library, too.  Furthermore, how will it be to use a “library” in which the content or authorship of the books can’t be certain.

I would love to see some of our brightest kids take on the challenge of finding ways to protect information and literature from unauthorized scanning and sharing. My imagination conjures wild ideas like paper that would react to scanning by going dark instead of recreating the images. Or the embedding of digital “locks” in physical books that need a specific digital key to allow scanning access—a key available only from the publisher or author. There must be lots of real possibilities that our digitally literate kids might be able to come up with. And surely there can be methods of compensating the authors somehow when their books are made available to readers. 

We need free libraries—many or most of us writers are among the “people too poor to buy every book they want or need to read” that the folks of Internet Archive and Open Library say they want to serve. I would point out that Robin Hood didn’t rob the poor to help the poor! There are copyright laws for a reason. In the long run they don’t just protect writers, they protect readers as well.

Here are some links for anybody who wants to find out more about this issue:

https://www.authorsguild.org/industry-advocacy/cdl-appeal-to-readers-and-librarians/

https://www.authorsguild.org/where-we-stand/controlled-digital-lending-cdl/

https://nwu.org/book-division/cdl/appeal/?fbclid=IwAR0IP8MyJ15JPrVn1CvVVYzAN0zoQoB6_NDX-mFZDiDSj_Tp0FCtSHCtmNY

https://nwu.org/book-division/cdl/faq/

 

F

6 Responses to “Calling All Readers and Writers!”

  1. Shulamit February 21, 2019 at 7:50 pm #

    Seems like at the very least, there ought to be a lawsuit based on the suit that closed down Napster for similar issues.

    Thank you for writing this, Stephanie. I will spread it in my own writers’ circles.

    • Stef February 21, 2019 at 8:57 pm #

      Shulamit, the difficulty is that copyright lawsuits are wildly expensive and this one is likely to run into millions. There aren’t many writers who can take that on. (And the super rich writers who maybe could, might not feel they have a dog in this fight.) The same is true with writers who have academic positions, as for some of them the books could be not so much about making a living as about getting tenure or an academic reputation.

      • Dr. Dad February 22, 2019 at 1:29 pm #

        I think any lawsuit would have to come from deeper pockets. The authors may make as much as 10% off the sales price of books, but retailers and publishers make much more. The lawsuit that shut down Napster wasn’t Metallica vs Napster, it was RIAA vs Napster.

        So maybe you should tell HarperCollins that someone is stealing their money.

  2. Stef February 22, 2019 at 9:48 pm #

    Dr. Dad–Harper-Collins and other publishers are at work on this problem, too. They know they are being robbed in even a bigger way than we are, though of course if writers quit writing, publisher won’t be in good shape. What concerns me is the threat to the whole system of connecting humans and books! Or humans and challenging and nourishing and important ideas and art. People need to take the long view, and in this current culture seem able to see only their own immediate needs or wishes. Indigenous peoples took a view that went out generations. Not so much the way 21st century humans are thinking…

  3. Kate February 25, 2019 at 10:00 pm #

    I will absolutely send this to my son who has an interest in all things tech. Maybe he could work on such a project in one of his college classes or with his compsci professor as a research project. I have recently purchased many of your books (physical copies) for my younger son to take to camp and he loves them. I had no idea this was happening and I’m glad you are calling attention to it. I hope many more join the fight!

    • Stef February 26, 2019 at 2:23 pm #

      Thanks, Kate. I really suspect there’s a way (or can be one) to deal with this, but it for certain requires that people process it in ways that take the whole system of information and literature creation and sharing into account. So far they seem to care only about how to give people free stuff. No one I’ve conversed with from Open Library seems to understand the problem and what its larger ramifications will be if there is no change to what they’re doing now. And even those considering the needs of the “content creators” don’t seem to focus yet on what the idea of a wiki where anyone can make changes at will and without oversight means to authenticity and accuracy. There seems to be a dark side to this information superhighway we’re all so fond of…

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