Copyright & Seminars

Eoin Purcell

Seminars & Such
Tuesday was a busy day for seminars. As I mentioned yesterday(, I attended a Blogging and the Arts session in the morning, in the evening in the comfortable surroundings of Buswell’s Hotel (not too far away from were this was happening) I attended the Copyright Association of Ireland’s(the link is to an introduction page) seminar on recent developments in case law.

It was one of those meetings that reminds you why you find a subject fascinating and yet also imposes upon you a great sense of relief that you chose not too pursue a career in it.

By far the most relevant to publishing was the idea of Public Lending Right a concept we have only just introduced in Ireland and which will be run by the Library Council.

The initial cost is estimated to be €600,000 with full year costs put at €1,100,000. The talk at the seminar was that this seemed a modest sum. To me it seemed rather a lot. I have to say that as a publisher I don’t quite grasp the reason why Authors are remunerated for the books in the Public Lending Library over and above their royalty. Surely if there is a fee due to anyone for lost revenue it is due to all and why the author in particular ought to benefit and not the publisher (who after all finances the entire process) or the retailer (who loses sales to libraries) is beyond me.

Droit de Suite
One other matter emerged to worry me. The topic of Artist resale right came up as last year Ireland introduced a rather weak scheme designed to ensure that artists saw some of the return from the appreciation in value of their work.

Frankly I am completely dumbfounded by any such system. The basic premise of this seems to be you sell a painting to some buyer when it is worth say €300. That seller after three decades (or whatever period of time) decides that he/she has enjoyed the piece but feels like selling it, capturing the increased value and buyer some other art. Despite the fact that they have bought the piece outright you are entitled to 15% royalty from the price he receives for selling it if the price is €3000 or more.

I simply can see no reasonable logic for this tax on investment in art. Especially as it enriches those late in their careers and disadvantages newcomers, surely it depresses new art if buyers know that their potential for profit is reduced when selling it in years to come.

Where I am with copyright
I am beginning to realize that I am relatively alone in the world of Publishing in having a profoundly negative view of copyright in general. For one thing I see the length of its duration as obscene. Why 70 years following the death of an author? The estate of the author is surely adequately rewarded after 20 years. After all the actual originator of the literature has no use of the money, he will not be incentivized to produced new work no matter how much his works earn in royalties. The true beneficiaries (or so it seems) are the publishers and the living relatives of the writer. Neither the consumer, nor other artists looking to mash up or utilize aspects of the work benefit.

See the innovation
What is more, I truly believe that the length of copyright limits innovation by publishers. The back list is an essential element of all publishers’ catalogues (At Random House US the New York Magazine tells us it accounts for some 80% of the profit) but look for instance at the recent innovations in the field of Classics. Unhindered by copyright concerns, dozens of versions and editions of classic titles abound.

From exceptional quality hardbacks through slimmed down and abridged versions, chicklit versions, comic versions, red, green, black editions. Penguin has excelled at using free content to sell slim editions and fine special editions. Even my former employer Nonsuch has shown itself adept at this game finding a nice niche in publishing books that although popular in their time, they have no slid somewhat down the scale and remain outside the accepted Cannon.

My point is simply this. Copyright has its value and the artist deserves his or her reward while alive. I see the logic of allowing an estate to collect for a short period of time after the authors death but I cannot see the rational behind a 70 year exclusion zone. To be frank I would much rather a copyright based simply on the date of publication for a set time (perhaps 50 years).

But that is the lifeblood of industry!
And so it is but do we really need to hold copyright for 70 years after an authors death? How limited are the books for which a publisher actually holds and exploits these deadlines? I suspect the number of titles and authors is exceptionally limited. In fact I must search for that data. Project anyone . . . .

Of to do some work on this


  1. Very interesting post, Eoin.

    On the question on the PLR, I lobbied against it (I was working for the Union of Students in Ireland at the time; we had policy agin’it, primarily on the grounds of the impact on academic libraries). However it was a little futile (although there is, thankfully, an academic exemption, and the money doesn’t come – for now – from the library budget), as it is a requirement of EU law and Ireland had lost significant legal battles with Brussels over it. (The original Irish policy was to exempt all public/academic libraries, which was found to be malimplementation of the directive!). I share your scepticism and it’s great to see it from a publisher’s perspective.

    On the issue of 70 + life, it is clearly a problem – but in practice the biggest problems tend to be for other publishers who find that the work being cited/quoted/used is still ‘in copyright’. In extreme cases (e.g. the Joyce estate) it becomes a tool for the suppression of views not in accordance with those of the executor! There was a constitutional challenge in the US (Eldred v Ashcroft) in which it was argued that the length of protection was so long that it was no longer the ‘limited Times’ permitted by the Constitution – it failed, though.

    Books by Lawrence Lessig (The Future of Ideas, Free Culture) and Sida Vaidhyanathan (Copyrights and Copywrongs) are useful in terms of the US debate on copyright terms.

  2. Daithí,

    thanks for the erudite comments. I checked out your blog and was impressed.

    The issue of why Ireland had adopted the scheme was addressed but I got the distinct impression that the view held generally in the room was “oh the commission was damn right”. I found that a little irritating.

    As for the suppression of view points other than the estates; i strikes me that the original motivations of copyright (not to mention the future existence of) are exceptionally badly served by such occasions.


  3. Eoin,

    Thanks for your thoughts on Artist’s Resale Right. It’s a scheme that works very successfully in the UK and has been for over a year now. Artists have received over £1.3 million so far and there definitely hasn’t been a downturn in the art market, which we all know is booming.

    It’s worth pointing out though, that artists don’t receive 15% as you state, it’s actually a royalty based on a sliding scale ranging between 4% for the lowest value works and dropping down to 0.25% as the value of the work increases. Furthermore, the royalty is capped at €12,500 on any one sale.

    This is not a tax on art. It is a royalty designed to recognise the investment of the artist in the value of the art work. It’s the growth and development of their career that increases the value of the piece of art you bought – not the fact that it was hanging above your fireplace for 30 years.

  4. Tania,

    Thanks for the comments. Sorry for the inaccuracy but that was the figure mentioned at the seminar in Dublin, I am glad to hear it is not as high as that.

    Respectfully though I cannot see how it is anything other than a tax on art and one that benefits established artists. I can see no reason why they should benefit at the expense of the seller or indeed the new buyer.

    Surely the ‘investment of the artist in the value of the art work’ was acknowledged when they were paid the initial price asked when they sold it?

    At least that is how I see it, I can understand why an artist would see the case differently though even if I feel their viewpoint might be somewhat biased.

  5. Eoin,

    Interesting post, especially your comments on copyright terms. I agree, the current situation is nothing short of obscene, and one driven entirely by US corporate interests. Damn that mouse! Laurence Lessig has an interesting wiki Against Perpetual Copyright wherein he agues that the framing of copyright as ‘intellectual property’ has contributed to recent term extensions. I myself really don’t see why copyright should extend beyond the life of the author.

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