Celebrating 35 Years of ALCS
To mark the 35th anniversary of the establishment of ALCS in 1977, we take a look back at our organisation’s eventful and campaigning history, through the eyes of our Honorary President, Maureen Duffy.
A founder member of the Writers’ Action Group (WAG), a stalwart band of writers who had long championed the idea of a collecting society for the profession, Maureen is still involved with ALCS well over three decades later. Without the steadfast support of campaigners like her, ALCS would never have developed from its humble beginnings into the thriving and politically influential organisation it is today, and moreover into a business that last year collected £30 million on behalf of its writer members.
ALCS actually began life as the Authors’ Lending & Copyright Society - out of our belief that if authors had their own organisation based on a model that already existed on the continent, we could make a bid to run our own affairs. We wanted to counter the argument that Public Lending Right (PLR), for which we were also fighting at the time, should be given to the Arts Council to administer, or be paid through our publishers (ironic that this Treasury argument should re-surface again thirty-five years later with the current threatened reorganisation of PLR).
We were encouraged at the time by the knowledge that money for British writers was already sitting in the account of the German collecting society VG Wort, which could only pay it over to a sister organisation.
The Authors' Lending & Copyright Society (ALS) was eventually incorporated on 23 March 1977 with its first Council of Management consisting of Brigid Brophy, Ted Willis, Colin Spencer, Michael Levey, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Joyce Marlow and myself.
Photocopying: The Next Big Threat
At this time I had also begun to take an interest in the developing technology for photocopying, sensing that this could be the next big threat to writers’ incomes. As with public library use, many people would have access to the same book, and the individual author would be unable to do anything about it, receive any income from it or even know that it was happening.
My first idea was that Rank Xerox, who had the virtual monopoly of photocopying technology at that time, should pay us compensation, and we would conduct samples similar to PLR. We discovered, however, that ALS was unsuited to the job. My solicitor Jack Black, who gave his services for free, drew up the necessary articles and began the process of setting up a company limited by guarantee, adding ‘Licensing and Collecting’ to the name. We collected the German money and at once it was clear that we needed an office and an administrator.
As the Writers’ Action Group (WAG) we had been magnificently supported by Michael Foot and his assistant Elizabeth Thomas. When the Labour Government fell in 1979, it left Elizabeth free to become our first General Secretary. We now needed money to get our fledgling flying. Brigid Brophy and Michael Levey both put in £500, my agent Jonathan Clowes and my accountant Anton Felton gave £500 each and Paddy Kitchen and Dulan Barber £500 between them. ALCS now had capital of £2,500!
One of the three publishers who had supported our campaign, Reg Davis-Poynter (the others were the two Christophers, Sinclair-Stephenson and Maclehose), gave us a desk in his office at the top of a tall building in Charing Cross, and a helpful friend carried my metal filing cabinet up the stairs to that office. We were in business, and luckily for the infant enterprise, Lord Ted Willis agreed to be our first chairman, which gave us a kind of respectability.
We soon realised that we needed publishers to campaign with us for photocopying fees and persuaded them to set up the parallel Publishers Licensing Society (PLS) and to join us in the federal Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA). It was a great day when I was photographed holding up our first cheque from Scottish educational copying, after wearying negotiations in Glasgow under the chairmanship of Lord Wolfenden.
When Elizabeth Thomas retired to Gloucestershire we were fortunate to find Janet Hurrell, the sister of one of our most dedicated WAG supporters Joyce Marlow, to replace her as General Secretary. Since then as our income and resources have grown we have changed General Secretary as the need has arisen, each one building on the work of their predecessor. And now we also have our own Writers’ House like those we visited on the continent in the 70’s, but couldn’t afford at the time, despite Graham Greene offering us £10,000 towards such a project.
Run By Writers, For Writers For 35 Years
From the beginning we saw ALCS as a kind of mutuality or co-op, being run by writers for writers (eventually all the original donors of £500 were paid back and my filing cabinet was returned to me and replaced by an extensive data processing system). It has always been important that the administration of the company should never exceed the 10% charged by agents. We are currently at less than 8%, a great achievement, and our annual turnover for distribution to our 85,000 Members is £30 million, money that would otherwise be lost to the writing community. So the 35th anniversary of ALCS is a celebration of all the people and effort that have gone into achieving this.
But I have to remind you, even as we celebrate, that there will always be those who feel that we writers should make our work available for free. Now we have to fight for payment for all the digital uses that are replacing photocopying and the physical lending of books. Fortunately we are stronger and have more ways to make our voice heard, especially through the All Party Writers Group. As in the beginning, powerful multinational groups will try to tell us what is best for us and try to take over our affairs. The anti-copyright lobby will seek to deny us a right to our own work, and any income from it ‘in the public interest’. And politicians, who don’t seem to understand that creators sometimes have to eat to create, will look to appease global corporations, thereby increasing public misunderstanding of the true purpose of copyright.
But we have been there before, and come so far. Writers must, and will, continue to fight for their universal human right to their creations, and a just return for their use.
Maureen Duffy is the author of 31 published works including fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and 16 plays for stage, screen and radio, the most recent, being Sappho Singing. She was recently awarded a D.Litt by Loughborough University for contributions to literature and equality law reform.