Copyright Process Infringes On Creator Of Work

Updates: The copyright office has gotten much faster for online registrations. Enforcement remains a hassle. I wrote a short eBook about protecting copyrights online in 2012 which is available at Amazon for 99 cents.

If I ran the copyright office and we fell a month behind on processing copyright registrations, I’d be working sixteen hours a day and nursing an ulcer. If we fell two months behind, I’d be handing out pink slips to my Federal employees, long spoiled with 99% positive job approval ratings, and to hell with their unions. If we fell three months behind processing registrations, I’d be so deeply ashamed that I would commit Seppuku.

I realized a couple weeks ago that a copyright registration I submitted back in the summer of 2008 still hadn’t been processed, so I went to their website to look for an e-mail address to complain. What I found was a note stating that an electronic registration may take up to six months for processing and the paper form registration may take up to eighteen months to process. In other words, as far as the Copyright Office is concerned, my registration certificate wasn’t even overdue yet! When I decided to write a post today with a copyright process flowchart I had kicking around, I went back to the copyright website to get a screen shot of the current copyright processing times:

That’s right, they’ve fixed the problem by changing their expectations. The copyright office now considers it normal to take up to nine months to process electronic registrations, and up to twenty-two months to process paper registrations. By that standard, they may feel I have nothing to complain about until April or May 2010. Shame on them! Shame on the Library of Congress, on the Copyright Office, and shame on every manager and employee who is waiting out their time for a pension and moaning about their workload and budgets. If the fault lies in their own incompetence, they should be fired, and if the fault is truly beyond their control, they should resign en masse in protest.

Yes, I’m speaking to you directly, employees of the copyright office. Have you no shame? Have none of you ever worked in real jobs, such that you know the difference between accomplishing a task and punching a clock? Do any of you really believe that the blame for your inability to perform a simple job lies with the Congress, or with the American people? Whatever money you are paid, you are stealing from the fee-paying publishers and taxpayers. The copyright office is a scandal and you should all be fired with prejudice.

I have two suggestions for addressing the problem. First, the process of registering copyrights should be split off from the depository function of the Library of Congress for all publishers, authors, creative artists, etc, who are willing to submit an electronic copy of the work separately. As those of us who have filed electronic copyright registrations using the ECO (Electronic Copyright Office) website know, the process is a bad joke terminating in printing a form to be mailed in. There is no reason in heaven or on earth for copyright registration not to have a purely electronic option, where registration receipt is instantaneous with submission. The so-called review process the copyright clerks occasionally delve into is a pointless exercise at best. The copyright clerks cannot hope to do the research for every (or any) copyright that would determine whether material is truly 100% original and properly credited and whether parts are stolen or borrowed from other works, so why go through the charade?

My second suggestion is that the Copyright Office be outsourced to as many competing entities as can pay the price of entry, just like Internet domain registration, which is a more important registration service by far. As far as I’m concerned, Congress could kick the whole copyright registration process to Google Books, who could do it in their sleep and probably wouldn’t even see the need to charge a fee. In the end, the only value of copyright registration is having a legal, time stamped record of the creation of a work that will allow a lawsuit for copyright infringement to be filed on the best terms for the creator of the work. After that, it’s all up to the attorneys and courts, the Copyright Office serves no role as an advisor or a policing entity in infringement cases. As to the depository function of the Library of Congress, if they really want copies of all the books being published, they can ask publishers and authors to send them two copies, most will be more than happy.

The one thing I would warn against is simply privatizing the Copyright Office to establish a monopoly agency, like Bowker, the monopoly ISBN registrar for the United States. Having to deal with and pay incredibly inflated fees to another Bowker would just about kill most aspiring small publishers. Of course, the continued existence Bowker may give somewhere for all the Copyright Office employees to go when they get fired - they would fit right in there.

Commercial Impact Of Google Books Settlement

I just finished reading the amended settlement agreement between Google and the class of authors and publishers represented by the Authors Guild et al. Actually, I wore out after reading the first 80 pages and flipped through the rest, a great deal of which was dedicated to the library side of the deal. Based on the summary Google sent out to publishers and authors, I had been leaning to opting out of the settlement, but now I think I'll let it ride for the time being.

Many authors and publishers have a fundamental concern over Google's scanning of library books without getting permission from the rights holder. Those rights holders can opt out of the agreement on the Google Book Settlement website. My current understanding is that the settlement only applies to books published in the U.S. if the copyright was registered with the Library of Congress. I'm guessing this is either because the registration records are being used in the chain of custody to establish ownership, or because the owners of books who don't register their copyrights can't take Google to court until they do register them, at which point they would automatically become part of the class subject to the agreement. A cynical person might claim that rights holders without registered copyrights don't matter because they don't qualify for statutory damages or award of legal costs. If you think legal costs are minor, the amended agreement sets aside up to $30 million for the attorneys of the plaintiffs in the current settlement. Note that the U.K., Australia, and treaty countries are also included one way or another, but I didn't pay much attention to those parts.

The main sticking point for me was the definition of "commercial availability" and Google's absolute control over pricing for POD versions of the books, which they will most likely sell through third parties such as Lightning Source or Amazon. The agreement refers to a 60 day buffer period for the Rights Registry to contact the publisher or rights owner, after Google determines the book is not commercially available. This initially struck me as high handed, as there is no absolute requirement for Google to contact the publisher, even if the publisher is easily located.

The determination of commercial availability is to be made from online sources and electronic databases, and in cases where those data sources don't agree, Google has the right to make their best guess. An obvious example might be the Books-In-Print database showing books as being available because the publisher never officially declared them out-of-print on the Bowkerlink website, but as a self publisher, I'm not happy about online catalogs and databases being accepted as the gospel. I've known many self publishers who published without ISBN numbers (including myself) and registered the copyrights, making those books subject to the amended settlement agreement. If those books are only sold direct by the publisher or through specialty outlets, they will fail the test of commercial availability. However, buried deep in the settlement language was a paragraph stating that Google may not challenge the commercial availability of a title that the rights owner states is commercially available.

Another worry was that the agreement failed to address the issue of new editions. I initially believed that previous editions of a book that is commercially available may fall into the fair-game bucket, and publishers of multi-edition books might find new POD or eBook versions of previous editions being sold in competition against the newest edition, and without the publisher having any say in the pricing. But it turns out that the agreement covers this very explicitly:

"In-Copyright Principal Work. If a Book’s Principal Work is not in the public domain under the Copyright Act in the United States and that Book is Commercially Available, then any other Book that has the same Principal Work (such as a previous edition) is also deemed to be Commercially Available, whether or not such other Book is at the time in question also Commercially Available."

One area in which Google's long battle against web spam showed through was in their insistence of controlling outgoing links from author landing pages. It wasn't clear to me if Google intends to create an author landing page for all authors whose works fall under the agreement and who sign up through the registry, or how those authors may be given the ability to add a link to the author landing page in the first place. But Google explicitly reserves the right to remove links from an author landing page to an author website if the website has nothing to do with the books or is otherwise an inappropriate site.

I remain fairly confused over the meaning of the various deadlines and dates that pepper the agreement. While I think it's always possible to opt out in the future, it looks like the rights holder loses the basic per/book scanned payment by waiting too long, and may have trouble stuffing some of the other cats back into the bag once they're on the streets. The agreement struck me as a reasonable compromise between authors and publishers need to protect copyright, and Google's dual drive to disseminate the world's knowledge as broadly as possible, and make a profit doing it. But it is a compromise, and I believe copyright protection has been weakened by Google's ability to unilaterally force the issue, if nothing else.

Best Self Publishing Posts For 2009

I wrote and deleted two blog posts earlier today, the first about self publishing for professionals who are more interested in reputation than book sales, and the second about the impact of Amazon reviews on book sales. I abandoned them both in the proofreading stage because they struck me as dry and repetitive. If you've stopped laughing long enough to continue reading, yes, I do proofread my posts, I'm just not very good at it:-)

What I learned, at the cost of a day, is that I'm burning out on blogging even at the once a week rate. It doesn't help that I see I continuing decline in search visitors to the blog, due to the inherent limitations of blogging and the general decline of interest in the self publishing subject. The latter may come as a surprise, given the media hype about self publishing and consolidation in the author services industry, but take a look at this Google data:

That's the organic search traffic, and I don't think that Google even adjusts it for their growth in market share over the period. So while interest may be growing in author services and self publishing boutiques that will turn your photo album into a short run family publication, the number of authors using the Internet to research self publishing as a business is shrinking.

Whatever the case may be, this is just a short announcement that I'm going to give up blogging on a schedule and only write about self publishing when I feel I have something new to say. I thought I'd just link a half dozen of what I felt were the best self publishing posts I made during the past year for newcomers stumbling onto blog.

Viral book marketing case study

Authors, Customers, Editors, Distribution and Google

Pretty websites don't sell books

Why self publish?

YouTube Video and book marketing

The future of the offset printing business model

Pretty slim pickings, but I didn't want to go back any further. If you're subscribed to the atom feed, it will let you know when I post next.

In Search Of Web 21.0

Some publishers are still waiting for the web to reach adulthood, call it Web 21.0, before they commit serious resources. Other publishers drool for book readers to become ensnared on their sticky websites so they can paralyze them and extract all of their dollars. I've tried to steer the middle path of growing a web presence that meets the objective of my typical visitor (getting free information), along with my objective of making a living. I'd estimate my direct conversion rate of visitors to book or eBook customers is now down in the area of 0.1% (one in a thousand), so I must be doing something right:-)

I attended a BookBusiness webinar a week ago in which HarperCollins presented one possible vision for the future – smartphone users scanning a special code on book covers that loads the book’s web page in their phone browser. I don’t get the point of stuff like that, or why I would want to hold a book cover in front of a web cam and see a 3-D image on my computer screen, but I guess I’m not the target audience.

Predicting the future is a tough business, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes. In 2007 I wrote that Internet publishing was turning into a zero sum game, but since that time, my visitor count has risen 20% a year, and my video views have gone from zero to over a half million. It's easier to look backwards, so I'm going to report a couple interesting trends and let you decide what they mean for your publishing business.

The most startling change around here is that my new e-mail correspondence, people I haven't heard from before, has fallen by well over 30% in the last couple years and by over 50% from the start of the decade. If you take into account that traffic to this website has at least quintupled during that period, it means that on a per visitor basis, the correspondence rate has dropped over 90%. There are plenty of days now that I get more notifications of eBook purchases than questions from new visitors. I’m not complaining, but it shows a fundamental shift away from person-to-person communication in favor of person-to-network communication. I think that the people who would have sent me a question years ago now prefer to bounce it off a hundred “friends” or post it on a blog where it may draw multiple responses and get some public notice. I think it also expresses a trend of treating business activity as a social activity, which I believe is a wrong path.

The search phrases that people use are getting longer. This may drive more spam generation, since it’s easier for spammers to rank in results for long tail phrases. But it also means that publishers who put a great deal of content online can expect to get some search visitors, even if their websites don't have quality incoming links. At the same time, publisher website transparency is improving (finding out what other publisher websites are doing), especially with the recent Alexa improvements which do a half decent reporting some of the top search phrases driving readers to a particular publisher website.

The number of media inquiries I received in 2009 is way down, and it's the first year in a while that I didn't get a single e-mail from a NYT or WSJ reporter looking for backstory on this or that publishing news. At the same time, the number of requests from university students to advise or provide a quote for their class projects about the publishing business is way up - maybe instructors now give assignments with guidelines that include getting feedback from a blogger. I've also seen an uptick in other bloggers asking me for interviews to post on their websites. I usually turn these down because they really seem to be looking for a blog enthusiast fellow travelers. I've also noticed an increase in the number bloggers who make contact by way of an underling, which is a total turn-off.

Another development is false traffic from search engines. In the past, most false traffic came from spiders and you could take search engine traffic legitimacy for granted. Today, it seems some people are using BotNets (slave computers taken over by viruses) to make phony search engine queries and then to generate clicks through a script. I assume the idea is to send a lot of apparently real visitors to their own websites to make them appear like valuable property for advertising, but sometimes the scripts go haywire and they send traffic to other sites. If you see an extra thousand visitors from a search engine, all coming from different IP addresses, all for the same phrase, you know there's something fishy going on or the search engine has lost its marbles.

I actually came across a spider in my room the other day who was searching for web 21.0, or any web it could find. By the size of it, I think it escaped from the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. In any case, I wrote it this little ditty:

The eensy weensy spider climbed up the bedroom wall,
Down came the shoe and made the spider fall
Out came the paper and wiped up the remains
And the eensy weensy spider has shifted astral planes