08 June 2012
Posted in Books and Poetry
A talk given by Nick Yapp for the European Writers' Council 2012 Authors' Rights Conference
I’ll start with a confession. To my shame, only after 32 years as a writer have I finally read the UNESCO Recommendations on the Status of the Artist. Reading them, I thought for one moment that I must have died at my laptop and passed on to the authors’ Land of Dreams, for the Recommendations not only affirm that there is a need to improve the 'social security, labour and tax conditions of the artist, whether employed or self-employed', but also that member states should provide both 'assistance' and 'material and moral support' for authors. This goes hand in hand with the process of education to create a public 'capable of appreciating the work of the author'. And, crucially, the Recommendations recognised the right of trade unions and professional associations of artists to defend the work of their members.
The Recommendations were drawn up following a conference in Belgrade in the autumn of 1980. The term ‘Artist’ was taken to mean any person 'who creates… or contributes to the development of art and culture and who asks to be recognised as an artist'. The Recommendations were to apply to everyone from ballet dancers to puppeteers, from actors to circus performers, 'irrespective of race, colour, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic status or birth' – so I guess that must include every one of us here… or does anyone feel left out?
In preparing this paper, I have substituted the word ‘author’ for ‘artist’, in the hope that this will make it easier for us to focus on the issues we’re dealing with – it might complicate matters if you have puppeteers in mind all the time. And beyond mentioning this now, I shall plead no special case for the fact that authors (with poets and painters) are the most solitary of creative artists. One other small point - the website version of the UNESCO Recommendation has been poorly proof-read – but we authors are used to this.
As for ‘status’, well, there is a whole section on this. 'The word signifies on the one hand, the regard accorded to authors in a society, on the basis of the importance attributed to the part they are called upon to play therein and, on the other hand, recognition of the liberties and rights, including moral, economic and social rights, with particular reference to income and social security, which authors should enjoy.'
So far, so wonderful. But many changes have taken place in the world of authors since 1980. Indeed, the reality is that we are not only living through the greatest revolution in writing since the invention of the printing press, but also in the greatest ever revolution in the dissemination of ideas. Put an idea on the Internet, and it can reach millions of people around the world in a matter of minutes. The speed and irresistible power of this process makes you wonder why and how any regime can still think it worthwhile to operate a policy of censorship.
Let us take a look at what the Digital Age is doing to and for authors. First of all, it has created giant repositories for our work – in and out of copyright – and in so doing, has I think imposed on us two tasks: to distinguish between what is and what is not in copyright, and to protect that which is copyright. Even with the help of our brave allies in the Collecting Societies, this is extremely difficult, for there is a strong lobby demanding that once an author’s work has been placed on the Internet, it should become common property, for all to share without payment. What are we to think of this idea? Well, not much, because a by-product of this process is that authors are being deprived of payment that they should receive, and recognition that they should be given. I shall have quite a bit to say about money in this paper, not because I’m greedy (I wouldn’t have chosen to be a writer if I was a greedy person), but because money buys us valuable writing time and allows us to continue working – just as salaries do for entrepreneurs and designers and engineers and politicians, etc., etc… the list is almost endless, but I think I’ve made the point. If people are encouraged to think that authors should be paid nothing for their work, then we are living not in a Land of Dreams, but in a Land Of Nightmares.
A second serious issue attaches to this. Those who download copyright work from the Internet increasingly do so in the name of Freedom. Everything on the Net, they argue, should be free. This is just a new example of a very old misunderstanding – that getting something for nothing constitutes a Freedom, with a capital ‘F’. This is an appalling abuse of the word ‘Freedom’, making an act of theft sound as though it had something to do with an heroic campaign in pursuit of Freedom of Speech or Freedom of Expression. History teaches us that abusing these words is a very dangerous thing to do indeed.
For the Digital Age has – as yet – done nothing to make words less dangerous than they have always been. In the words we write, we sometimes assemble the most dangerous weapons in the world – ideas. And it is the mark of a civilised society that all of us - not merely authors, not merely non-authors - are allowed to use words to express the ideas, ambitions and criticisms that may help the world to become a better and a more just place. To deny authors this right is to deprive any society of the richest and most constructive means of debate. Time and again, the denial of the right to free speech has ultimately resulted in the use of far more dangerous substances than words, substances that destroy rather than create, that instil fear rather than hope. And once the right to free speech has been established, though it may have to be zealously guarded, it proves its worth for all time.
To liken the theft of an author’s work to Freedom of Speech is like… well, I have to admit to myself, and to you, that my powers as an author have failed me… I can’t come up with a simile strong enough to convey my disgust.
It’s now 32 years since the UNESCO Recommendations were drawn up. Even then, it was recognised: 'that national and international legislation concerning the status of authors is lagging behind the technical development of new communication and reproduction media, and of cultural industries…' The pace of change has dramatically accelerated since then. Given the changes we are grappling with, I should like to suggest that it is time for a new examination of the Status of the Author – an examination under the auspices of the European Community that would hopefully produce a new set of recommendations. These could cover such issues as:
- *The publication and marketing of eBooks. At the moment, there is little or no regulation, no Minimum Terms Agreement no meeting of minds between publishers and writers’ representatives to explore eBook publishing – though this now accounts for 25% or more of book sales in some countries.
- The examination of alternatives to traditional methods of book publishing, with special consideration given to young and first-time authors.
- An investigation into ways in which the technology of the Digital Age could widen the scope of the work of such institutions as public libraries, by exchanging books electronically with each other – even across national borders.
Should the fate of authors be of any concern to society? I think it should – for two reasons; one purely economic, the other more important than economics could ever be. This may be what distinguishes authors from many other people – we think there are some things that are more important than the economy. What dreamers we are!
Here’s an economic argument. A few years ago I did some amateur research for an article in the journal of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. I wanted to see how large are the spin-off industries we authors create – taking into account publishers, printers, agents, editors, the staff of film and television production companies that turn books into films or TV series, and people who work in libraries and bookshops. I was looking solely at UK figures, but the result surprised me. I discovered that more people owed their jobs partly or completely to the work of authors than were employed in British agriculture.
Some may argue that this is a clumsy yardstick, but they are probably every bit as prejudiced in their opinion as I am in mine – which is that what authors do is to provide the initial creative stage from which so much more flows. And that is not something that anyone can do. It requires skill, dedication, a touch of inspiration, and immense hard work. Authors earn their money.
Nick Yapp is Chair of the Writers' Guild's Books Committee and a Board member of the European Writers' Council