Are We All On The Same Page? The ALCS Debate

“If we can’t create a living for writers in the future, then we have a real problem”: Adam Singer, Chair of the ALCS Board.

To coincide with the launch of the headline findings from the What Are Words Worth Now? research (more details here), ALCS and Jim Dowd MP hosted a debate at the House of Commons entitled “Are We All on the Same Page?: Can a Fair Deal for Authors Be Balanced with a Fair Deal for All?”

Attended by an excellent turnout of MPs, Lords and journalists and authors – including Sarah Waters and Philip Pullman – the late afternoon debate was chaired by Baroness Floella Benjamin. The panellists were poet Wendy Cope; novelist Joanne Harris; Chair of the Copyright Hub, Richard Hooper; and Richard Mollet, Chief Executive of the Publishers Association.

The debate was introduced by Adam Singer, Chair of the ALCS Board of Directors. He set the scene by pointing out that the gross added value of the publishing sector to the UK economy is roughly £10 billion, that is, bigger than the automotive sector, or aerospace, or pharmaceuticals. All this publishing, he said, rests on words. “The question is, how do we maintain these values if we can’t make a living from words? Whilst content goes on for ever (and the demand for it is rising), we are seeing huge changes in who supplies it, and the business models under which it is made.” He added: “We need to relinquish 20th century triumphs, and come up with a new Reithian vision for a post-mass media age that encourages all creative industries; and that invariably starts with the word. If you can’t make a living from words, it’s hard to have a creative sector.”

“How can we ensure the future of copyright, now that the lives of so many creative people are being threatened?” was the question posed by Baroness Benjamin, after introducing the panellists. Here is a summary of the debate that followed:

To what extent is copyright currently achieving its objective?

Novelist Joanne Harris felt that not enough people understood the concept of copyright, or the principle that sharing can only be done with the permission of the sharer.

Chair of the Copyright Hub, Richard Hooper called for better data. “Finding out who owns the rights to something is a nightmare”. He urged authors to put pressure on publishers, collecting societies and other rights managers to collect better data. Otherwise, serious amounts of money would continue to be lost to authors.

Poet Wendy Cope expressed her belief that copyright law goes on too long, and that 25 years was long enough. But it was a human right she said, to be paid for her work. “My poems are all over the internet”, she said, recalling the well-meaning woman who told her, “I loved your poems so much I photocopied them for all my friends”.

Chief Executive of the Publishers Association Richard Mollet said that he didn’t believe the framework of the law needed changing, although aspects of it were not working as well as they might. He felt that copyright law should be presented in such a way as to encourage people to see it as a spur to creativity.

How should those who abuse copyright be dealt with?

Richard Hooper said he believed that this was a creative industries matter rather than a government one. In any case, he said that because users and creators are becoming one, this was no longer a war between those pro and anti-copyright. “We should stop fighting each other, and get together.” He said he felt copyright education was “too woolly” to be effective.

Wendy Cope defended the idea of educating people – especially young people – about copyright. “It would take five minutes to explain in an assembly once a year,” she said.

Joanne Harris said she believed that any message about the value of copyright needed to come from the top. “That means broadcasting the value of it. It’s not just about entertainment. People need to understand that words and stories are important throughout life.”

“We need creators to say what copyright does, not government,” said Richard Mollet, adding that he was in favour of copyright education as part of the curriculum. “But the government has a duty to put some tax-payers’ money into this. Give us the cash, and we’ll give it to the creators.”

How can we construct a more persuasive argument about the value of copyright? Is it a question of education or enforcement?

Wendy Cope: “Education”.

Joanne Harris felt that there was a huge need to re-educate all those who currently think they’re being Robin Hood, and robbing the big corporations by illegally downloading. “They’re not. They’re robbing the little people.”

Richard Hooper mooted the idea of getting children to register their own copyrights in their own work, to demonstrate how it works.

Richard Mollet said he felt it was a question of “eduforcement”. “There should be enforcement, but there should also be a big communication campaign, for which every writer should be a cheerleader.”

How do we deal with digital developments which make piracy rife?

Joanne Harris: “We need to make it easier for people to access content legitimately.”

Richard Mollet said that he thought it was astonishing that the government was trying to push through copyright exceptions that deprive creators of the ability to be compensated for uses of their work. “Write to your MP,” he urged the audience.

Richard Hooper said that for him, it was all about making the licensing processes easier, rather than about education or enforcement. “We have to get our licensing fit for purpose,” he said, adding that steps were already under way to make it so, including in schools.

Floella Benjamin interjected her belief that it was important to remember the sense of morality and trust involved too.

Joanne Harris said that it was also about changing perceptions. A regular on Twitter, she felt passionately that we need to puncture “all these little balloons” which are the popular perception of writers; what they do, and what they earn. “Through Twitter I’m interacting with my readers in a way that I’ve never done before. It’s so valuable in getting them to really understand what we do; that we have mortgages and children too. That it’s a real job, and that we’re trying to make a living like everyone else.”

And to quote a few closing remarks:

Floella Benjamin: “An author is an ordinary person who has a creative skill.”

Wendy Cope: “I’m not even sure this is about the poverty of authors. This is about fairness.”

Richard Hooper: “We need to talk about why publishers are still relevant.”

Richard Mollet: “There is stress in every bit of the value chain of the creative industries. So let’s be in this debate together.”

Read the opening address by Chair of the ALCS Board Adam Singer.

The event in pictures

Jim Dowd MP addresses the audience
Adam Singer, Chair of the ALCS Board, gives his opening address
Baroness Floella Benjamin chaired the debate
Novelist Joanne Harris
Poet Wendy Cope
Richard Mollet, CEO of The Publishers Association
Chair of the Copyright Hub, Richard Hooper

More pictures of the event on our facebook page