Saturday, May 19, 2007

Reversion of Rights at Risk?

Danuta Kean alerts us to an article in yesterday's New York Times reporting a move by publishers Simon and Schuster which is seen as extremely worrying by the American Author's Guild. Traditionally, once books fall out of print, if the publisher is not prepared to reprint, the rights revert to the author, but it seems that a change in Simon and Schuster's author contract allows them to retain the rights as long as it exists in any form, including electronic.

Simon and Schuster claim that this is simply a response to new technology, ie print on demand, whereby it is no longer necessary for publishers to retain a minimum number of warehoused printed copies. However, Guild executive Paul Aiken sees great danger in print on demand which can mean that the book is available 'only in dribs and drabs' (and therefore not aggressively published) and this new contract as allowing Simon and Schuster to sit on the rights to a book indefinitely while they stop bothering to publish it altogether. “We’re not against the technology," he says, "we’re just against the technology being used to lock up rights.”

However, on the Guardian books blog, Nicholas Clee reports Mark LeFanu, general secretary of the UK Society of Authors, as seeing such changes in contracts as inevitable: "We need to work out a way in which we can give reasonable protection to publishers' interests while at the same time giving authors the opportunity to withdraw from contracts if sales are low."

Recently the Writer's Guild lawyer, vetting my contract with Salt, advised striking the clause which gave them electronic rights. But electronic rights are precisely the basis of Salt's innovative business model, and there was indeed a clause giving me back the rights if sales fall beneath a certain level within a certain time span.


Vanessa G said...

Thank you for posting this.

The same scenario was mentioned by David Edgar yesterday, in the Q and A session following his brilliant and scathing delivery of this year's Asham lecture at Sussex University.

It appears to be a very precarious thing we are seeing here. New technologies working against the interests of the writer par excellence. Worth watching, with more than interest, I would have thought.

Digression follows:

David Edgar in his lecture focussed on a fascinating and disturbing trend in the arts in general. Censorship. Not by official censors in the first instance, but by groups in society seeking to protect their 'freedom not to be upset'.

There seems he said to be a belief in society that artistic portrayal of something, be it paedophilia, religious bigotry,... or indeed anything to do with religion at present...etc etc(in any form, stage, screen, the written word)is actually condoning, and therefore on the same continuum as participation.

Perhaps, with these constraints, what we write will have to be so anodyne in future... risking no upset to anyone at all...that the reversion of rights may become academic. The writers, (if we carry this on to its logical conclusion) will have ceased to write anything that they care about.


Elizabeth Baines said...

Do you not feel that this is already happening on a less obviously political level - ie as a result of the whole marketing ethos which has taken hold of publishing, whereby only books which will 'appeal' can get published (by which is meant any book which is not 'too dark' or 'challenging' or in any way requiring readers to THINK)?

Vanessa G said...

To a certain extent, yes. But this appears to be a new phenomenon...that (for example) art taking Myra Hindley as a 'subject' illustrating a deeply felt belief of the writer, risks being censored, not because of potential damage on a widespread public level at all.... but because it would/might upset the families of her victims.

That is NOT to deny the dreadful events that happened. It is NOT to deny the unthinkable hurt they have caused.

But... carrying the thought train further... it is like saying we must not write about the crucifiction because it might upset people. Must not write a play in which the Bible is burned, or the Koran, or the Torah... because it might upset people.

Of course it might. And sometimes it is in that very upsetting that people are made to think and confront themselves.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Mm, well this sort of thing has already happened of course - Rushdie, and that Birmingham play about a rape in a mosque (to my shame I can't remember the playwright's name).

As for Mira Hindley: the TV drama about her, See No Evil, is a case in point. I absolutely hate dissing anything which my friends are in or have written (I know Neil McKay the writer, and Sue Twist who played Hindley's mother, brilliantly, in my opinion) and I did in fact think that this was a riveting drama and one of the best things Neil has done. But there was one thing missing for me, which was that I really wanted to know about Hindley's psychology, yet it was quite clear that this was off limits for the writer. I felt that this was confirmed by Neil's Bafta award speech last night thanking the families of the children for their support and close co-operation.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Oh, and of course I forgot to mention the Brick Lane saga.

Vanessa G said...

Exactly. All these and many many more.

Of course, it was something I was 'aware' of, but in dribs and drabs. The odd example read about now and again. And, I hasten to say, if it was my own 'story'... would I be so happy to side with the writers/artists/playwrights who want to use that?

That brings up another aspect of the lecture... and I do hope to goodness it will be reported somewhere verbatim... that our storries are becoming commodities. Thus the person who escaped from a bombing will have a commercial value placed on that story.

And there is yet another reason why artists cannot use them to illustrate their themes. It can now be argued that in so doing they are depriving the story's owner of a legitmate income.

Oh, I am aware I am NOT reporting the lecture well. I took no notes, and was just transfixed. But my goodness... it was dynamite.

Scott Pack was there. I wonder if he will write about it? I do hope so.

Neil McKay said...

Hi Elizabeth. I was alerted to this correspondence and just wanted to make a few points, lest speculation turns into fact as happens so easily on the internet.

I honestly don't think it's fair to compare those who censored Beshti or The Satanic Verses with the families of the Moors Murders victims. In the latter case we are talking about specific events which actually happened involving the abduction, torture, murder and burial of children, some of whose parents and many of whose brothers and sisters are still alive and living in the Manchester area.

These people naturally have an interest in accounts, fictional or otherwise of those events, not least because their treatment by much of the media and indeed most of the artists who have dealt with this subject has been cowardly and shoddy and rubbed salt into their wounds.

What they have sought and still seek is not censorship over such discussions, but to be extended the courtesy of being properly informed about them. The fact is that time after time this hasn't happened. For example the first the Kilbrides knew of Morrissey's song 'Suffer Little Children' was when John Kilbride's brother Danny walked into a pub and heard it playing on a jukebox. If you speak to the families they will give you countless similar examples. They deserve better. Of course artists should have freedom of expression. Does this exempt them from the obligations of ordinary human care and courtesy? I don't think so. Of course it does take some courage to approach people who have suffered in this way, but isn't that what artists are supposed to have?

As far as my drama See No Evil goes I don't think the families would have had any objection to my speculating about the motives of Myra Hindley but it wasn't primarily what I was interested in or what the drama was about. It was about the ramifications of what Brady and Hindley did and so the focus was on Myra Hindley's sister Maureen who went to her grave not being able to fathom her sister's actions. It seemed to me perfectly valid to reflect this and for me not to claim knowledge and understanding I simply don't have. (Though I may well have spent time in speculation).

So what, if any, censorship did I feel from the families? Well I believed, before meeting them, that depictions of the abduction, torture, rape, and burial of the children on primetime television would have been wrong, as would a recreation of the tape of Lesely Ann Downey being tortured. Was this censorship or self-censorhip? All I can say is that it was my personal judgement that such scenes would have been unneccessary and tasteless and would have caused great distress to the families - and surely their feelings matter? I would invite anyone who wishes to write about the moors murders to meet those families and tell them their feelings don't matter. How can we possibly suggest that they are like the people who forced the production of Beshti to be cancelled?

So was thanking the families at the Bafta awards an invisible nod towards censorship? No it was heartfelt thanks to people who over a period of three years had helped and assisted in the making of a drama which sought to portray the ramifications of evil, rather than analyse the motives of murderers.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Neil, thanks so much for this. You are right to point out the differences between entirely fictional works and those based on real-life events, which I was failing to do, and I accept that my need to understand Hindley's motives were extraneous to your your concerns. I reiterate that I think this was am amazingly sensitive as well as riveting film, and I do think that the depiction of the sister's dilemma was absolutely stunning. Actually, it was probably one of the most moving and troubling I have ever seen, ad it stays with me in a way that few do.

Charles Lambert said...

It seems to me that the real issue here is whether people who have a closed (i.e religious) world view have the right to be offended if this is challenged. The most extreme cases of this 'right' not to be upset without exception involve people who claim a right to be respected for their beliefs, however dangerous, abhorrent and irrational these beliefs may be. This was the problem with the Sikh play, with Rushdie, with the Jerry Springer musical, and dozens of other books and films over the past few years. The central issue here is whether religious beliefs have more value than others, and more right to feel offended. I'd say they have less right, rather than more, and already far too much respect. As Christopher Hitchens commented: What is asserted with evidence can be dismissed without evidence". I'd say it can also be mocked, ridiculed, subverted and ignored.

Anonymous said...

We have laws of libel to protect the living from defamation. So is it right and morally defensible to defame dead prophets? Sensitivity ought to guide our hearts in these matters.