Happy 90th birthday to Maureen Duffy, ALCS Honorary President

Maureen Duffy will celebrate her 90th birthday on Saturday. Maureen, an esteemed author, poet and playwright, was one of five founding members of ALCS in 1977. She also played a pivotal role in the campaign to establish Public Lending Right on behalf of authors in 1979.

In 2017, in celebration of ALCS’s 40th anniversary, we spoke to Maureen about the past 40 years, the foundation of what was to become ALCS and what it was like in those early days. You can read that interview in full below.

On behalf of everybody at ALCS, we want to wish a very happy birthday to Maureen, who has been an incredible advocate for the writing community over the past four decades.

Why was there a need for ALCS in the beginning?

ALCS actually began life as the Authors’ Lending and 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. We were encouraged 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 as a sister organisation.

Then the Treasury made it clear that we were not going to be allowed to administer PLR because it was government money and they had to set up a quango to do it. But I was also aware that photocopying was coming in, and that it had the potential to be extremely damaging to writers’ incomes and indeed, their moral rights as well. So once again, the idea of ALCS was floated and we set about seeing how it could be put into practice. We coined a strapline: No Use Without Payment. Which still applies!

The Authors’ Lending and Copyright Society was eventually incorporated on 26 April 1977, with its first Council of Management consisting of Brigid Brophy, Ted Willis, Colin Spencer, Michael Levey, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Joyce Marlow and myself.

How was ALCS funded and run in the early days?

When campaigning for PLR as the Writers’ Action Group (WAG), we had been magnificently supported by [former Labour Party leader] Michael Foot and his assistant Elizabeth Thomas. When the Labour Government fell in 1979, it left Elizabeth free to become our first General Secretary. Then we 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, and my solicitor, Jack Black, drew up the articles and registered the company for free.

One of the three publishers who had supported our campaign, Reg-Davis Poynter, gave us a desk in his office at the top of a tall building in Charing Cross, up whose stairs a helpful friend carried my metal filing cabinet. We were in business, and luckily, Lord Ted Willis agreed to be our first chairman, which gave us a kind of respectability.

How did you spread the word to writers about ALCS?

At first, it was very grassroots and spread through word of mouth and Brigid Brophy writing articles in various places. We also attended Society of Authors AGMs to spread the word. As soon as ALCS was a viable organisation, we sent newsletters round to the membership. We also lobbied parliament, just like we do today, and gathered sympathetic MPs who could then raise questions relevant to writers’ interests in the Commons.

And you built bridges with publishers too?

Yes, because we soon realised that we needed publishers to campaign with us for photocopying fees. So we persuaded them to set up the parallel Publishers Licensing Society (now Publishers’ Licensing Services) and join us in the federal Copyright Licensing Agency.

ALCS is now a much bigger organisation than the one you helped found. Has its ethos remained the same?

In ethos, it has not changed. From the beginning, we saw ALCS as a kind of mutuality or co-operative, 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. Our annual turnover for distribution to our members is currently £30 million, money that would otherwise be lost to the writing community. So the 40th anniversary of ALCS is a celebration of all the people and effort that have gone into achieving this.

What difference do you believe ALCS has made to writers over its 40 year existence?

If ALCS wasn’t there, we would need to invent it. We can celebrate the fact that we have collected a huge amount of money for writers that they would otherwise never have had. And that we have gained a sense of common purpose.

But this is no time to rest on our laurels. Even as we celebrate, there are those who feel that we writers should make our works 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.

And you, Maureen, are still fighting for authors’ rights in your ninth decade. What motivates to keep doing so?

I’ve always been interested in politics and there’s a sort of bloody-mindedness in me that wants to take issues on. It’s a continuous battle. As well as authors’ rights, I’ve also been a campaigner for gay rights and animal rights. I feel very strongly that you have to stand up and play your part.

You can watch an interview with Maureen for ALCS’s 45th anniversary last year below.