EDITORIAL Francesca Rhydderch

NWR Issue 78

Free For All

The e-book reader has arrived. Somewhere between the size of a BlackBerry and a laptop, it imitates the look and feel of an open book. With it comes a minefield of copyright issues that will take far too long to resolve. In the meantime, gadgets such as the Sony Reader and Amazon's much talked about Kindle may in their turn have been replaced by ever more advanced versions of other systems - the iPhone, for example - that will bring literature to the reader more quickly and cheaply, and copyright law, it seems, will always be caught on its back foot. For the emergence of the e-book reader simply brings a different emphasis to debates about the electronic transmission of writers' work that have been raging ever since the internet began to dominate our lives. The most widely publicised of these has surrounded Google's plans to digitise the contents of the largest libraries of the world. Just last month leading US publishers filed lawsuits against Google in a bid to stop the scheme going ahead, arguing that it represents a major violation of copyright. But the opinions of leading copyright experts differ widely, and the argument, says CNET news, comes down to one question: 'Is the search king setting itself up to be a copyright violator of epic proportions, or is it a champion of learning trying to make even the most obscure books readily accessible in a web search?'

In Wales debates about digital copyright are taking on a particular inflection following the announcement of the National Library of Wales' Welsh Journals Online project. Digitisation is a tempting proposition for New Welsh Review, for two reasons: first, a literary magazine has no choice but to make good use of the internet in order to market itself in a competitive field just as an individual author does; and second, small magazines are prone to periods of instability, decay and rejuvenation, and New Welsh Review is no exception. The Library's digitisation project will offer the magazine a secure electronic home, and readers worldwide will have permanent access to a vital strand of Welsh literary culture.

But amidst all the joy at the prospect of a wonderfully expanded academic resource, one small matter seems to have been forgotten. Of the money earmarked for the project not a penny has been put aside to cover royalty payments to authors. The assumption appears to be that writers should be so delighted at the prospect of having their work 'marketed' for them across the world (i.e. widely, fully and freely available at the click of a mouse), that they shouldn't be so base as to quibble about a fee. In a small, financially impoverished literary culture that relies heavily on grants and goodwill, this is unsettling, to say the least. Should New Welsh Review, which pays authors a miniscule fee for their work and then leaves copyright with them, simply sign over these rights to the National Library so that the digitisation project can be run primarily on an opt-out basis (i.e. authors who belatedly kick up a fuss will have their articles respectfully obscured in the digital version)? Incidentally, this is quite a different prospect from that faced by the magazine when we recently agreed to permit the Poetry Library to digitise just three single issues by way of offering an online sample. The Poetry Library took on the responsibility for contacting all individual copyright holders directly before proceeding. If they didn't hear from the authors, they took their silence as a 'no'. Nothing was taken for granted. And the Poetry Library will only ever hold digital versions of just three of the seventyeight issues published so far.

Freelance writers earn on average £4,000 per year. As Oliver Reynolds - one of the writers spearheading a campaign against digitisation without royalties - writes: 'Writing is work. Civilised societies create ways to reward people for their work.' The internet is a form of publication; just because it is also an amazingly efficacious marketing tool and means of self-promotion doesn't mean that it isn't. Whether you are one of the Facebook generation or not, there's something cynical about an opt-out approach to internet copyright permissions that doesn't square with the National Library's ethos, and that certainly doesn't square with one of the more special aspects of Welsh culture - the status it accords its writers. In our cut-and-paste, downloadable culture the author's existence as the original source of artistic work is truly under threat. Although we welcome the intention to safeguard Wales's cultural heritage, New Welsh Review will not sign up to the National Library's digitisation project until a fuller public debate has been encouraged by the Library and writers' views taken into consideration.


previous editorial: Soundtracks and Scores
next editorial: Compass Points


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