Author Archives: Mike Wolfe

Terminating Transfers: An Inalienable Right Under Threat

Posted July 6, 2017

Mike Wolfe headshotThe following is a guest post by Mike Wolfe, Scholarly Communications Officer at UC Davis, and the former Executive Director of Authors Alliance.

Sometimes, being an author means making bad deals. Authors are routinely asked to sign away their rights for the life of copyright—which lasts 70 years after death in the U.S.—and the promise of publication, or an advance, or just being done leads them to say, “yes.”

Authors always have options when they come to regret these decisions, but in the U.S. they often hold a trump card: Termination of transfers. These legal provisions, when exercised properly, let authors walk away from their copyright transfers. The linchpin that makes the whole thing work, and the feature that makes these rights so powerful, is that termination rights can’t be signed away. They work “notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary.” At least, that’s what the law says in the United States.

But termination rights are such a powerful tool for authors that they are constantly under threat. Recently a very public series of high-profile (and star-studded) lawsuits has helped to bring this into focus. First, a troubling court decision in the United Kingdom late last year created the potential to undermine the U.S. termination rights of authors worldwide, and more recently a lawsuit initiated by Sir Paul McCartney in the U.S. stepped in with the goal of protecting them.

Duran Duran, the British pop group behind “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Rio,” wrote their top hits while under contract to assign the copyrights—a contract signed as teenagers at the very beginning of their careers. Decades later, on the hunt after valuable royalties, the band exercised their U.S. termination rights in order to regain copyright and benefit from the success they realized “across the Rio Grande” from Mexico. It’s hard to imagine that, at the time, they had any inkling of being sued in the United Kingdom for breach of contract.

But the contract Duran Duran signed was with a British company, and was subject to British law. With Duran Duran’s terminations processing in the United States, the rightsholder brought Duran Duran into court in the U.K. for violating this agreement. In a highly questionable decision, the British court hearing the matter found that Duran Duran’s proper exercise of their rights under U.S. law was nevertheless a breach of their contractual commitments. (The band was granted leave to appeal the decision in February.)

While this one decision isn’t the last word on whether British law will ultimately respect U.S. termination rights, it does set a dangerous precedent. As high-profile terminations become more common, others will try to challenge them in local courts not just in the U.K., but all around the world. And the U.K. is a particularly important leader, given its large international role in many cultural fields, and particularly in international publishing. Authors from around the world, including authors in the U.S., publish with presses based in the U.K., signing agreements subject to U.K. law.

Enter Sir Paul McCartney, who has his own set of British music publishing contracts that might have been turned against his terminations of transfers. (McCartney would have been eligible to exercise his termination rights in October 2018.) Far from letting it be, I’ve got a feeling that McCartney drove his car down to the courthouse eight days a week, dead set on fixing that hole. His recent lawsuit against Sony/ATV, filed in the United States, sought a confirmation that he may exercise his termination rights without breaching his contracts. Late last week, however, the case settled under undisclosed terms, leaving the status of Sir Paul’s termination claims unclear.

The ramifications here are important. Notably, Duran Duran did not have expert evidence of how the U.S. termination rights override contracts to the contrary. If McCartney had gone to trial and won, he would have had more than just expert evidence; he would have had a judicial opinion in his favor. These cases might not be the last word on the subject, but pursuing  termination of transfers is one way put a halt to the disturbing trend of chipping away at authors’ rights. U.S. copyright law gives all authors, regardless of nationality, a very powerful right and authors everywhere have a stake in seeing it preserved.


Authors Alliance and Creative Commons are finalizing rightsback.org, an online tool designed to assist authors in identifying their eligibility for termination of transfer rights. The tool is currently in beta, and we expect to officially launch rightsback.org this fall. We will keep our readers updated on progress. In the meantime, we encourage authors to test the tool—it’s a powerful way to learn more about termination rights.

Copyright Week 2017: Building and Defending the Public Domain

Posted January 16, 2017

OG-CopyrightWeek

It’s copyright week! This week, Authors Alliance is joining a group of organizations in reflecting on some of the principles that help make copyright law an engine of creativity.

The public domain—the realm of works not subject to copyright restrictions—is a vital part of our creative system, providing the shared history, raw material, and expressive freedom essential to authorship and intellectual inquiry. It is worth celebrating and protecting, as Authors Alliance noted in our Principles and Proposals for Copyright Reform. In that document, we wrote that the law should “recognize the interests of both authors and the public in the public domain.” We elaborated:

The public domain . . . is critical to the scholarly and creative activities of authors. For too long, the law has ignored the importance of works in the public domain as essential building blocks for new creations. Copyright law should expressly recognize the public domain and the interests of authors and the public in its continued existence. Moreover, the law should recognize the public domain as inviolable: once made free to all, works and ideas should not again be subject to restrictions imposed by copyright law, by contracts, or by technology.

This bedrock principle is one we continue to support and are pleased to highlight this Copyright Week. Share our belief in the importance of the public domain to creative work? Join us as a member and show your support!

Slides from Waikato Workshop and Lecture

Thanks to all those who were able to attend Mike Wolfe’s workshop and lecture at the University of Waikato on 12 September. Please feel free to download the slides from those presentations linked to below:

If you found the presentations valuable, please consider joining us as a member. Membership is free, international, and greatly assists our work.

A note from the Executive Director

Posted September 6, 2016

Authors Alliance executive director Michael Wolfe

Over the last few years, it has been my privilege to work with Authors Alliance and to help the organization launch, grow, and thrive. It is vital that our community of authors working in the public interest has the voice and support their contributions merit, and helping realize that vision is as rewarding a task I could ever hope to have.

Going forward, however, I will be working toward many of these same goals in a new capacity and from a new perspective as I step down as executive director at the end of the year. Beginning in 2017, my primary commitment will be to a new position with a university library. Fortunately, this transition will not be the end of my time at Authors Alliance, as I will continue to be an active member of our community and contributor toward our efforts.

We are now beginning the process of finding the best candidate to move the Authors Alliance effort forward, and I encourage our members and allies to share the job listing, available here, widely. In the meantime, I am committed to driving all of our various efforts forward without delay. Authors Alliance has a great deal of exciting new resources and initiatives to share in the near future, and I remain confident that the organization has a bright and impactful future.

Is it time for authors to leave SSRN?

Posted July 17, 2016

Since we first heard of mega-publisher Elsevier’s acquisition of SSRN, the popular social sciences pre-print and working paper repository, we have expressed concern. Elsevier is not known to be an avid supporter of the open access publishing practices favored by many of our members, and has historically taken a restrictive stance toward author control and ownership of scholarship.

In response, we reached out to Elsevier and to SSRN with a set of principles the service could adopt that would reassure authors that SSRN could continue to be a go-to resource for those looking to refine and share their work. We have since heard back from SSRN: they would not commit to adopting even one of our principles. They offered more general reassurances that their policies would continue as before. We were not satisfied, but we decided to wait and see whether our fears would be borne out.

As feared, it now appears that SSRN is taking up restrictive and hostile positions against authors’ ability to decide when and how to share their work. Reports are surfacing that, without notice, SSRN is removing author-posted documents following SSRN’s own, opaque determination that the author must have transferred copyright, the publisher had not consented to the posting, or where the author has opted to use a non-commercial Creative Commons license. One author, Andrew Selbst, reported that SSRN refused his post even though the article’s credits reflected his retained copyright.

This policy fails to honor the rights individual authors have negotiated in order to put their work on services like SSRN. It misreads the Creative Commons licenses authors adopt in order to share their work. And it is a marked departure from the standard notice and takedown procedures typically used to remove user-uploaded copyright-infringing works from the web, eliminating both any apparent notice from the putative copyright owner and any clear recourse for the affected authors.

SSRN authors: you have not committed to SSRN. You can remove your papers from their service, and you can opt instead to make your work available in venues that show real commitment to the sharing, vetting, and refinement of academic work.

Just recently, SocArXiv—a new social sciences preprint archive built on the model pioneered in physics by arXiv—opened their doors to submissions. SocArXiv is supported by the University of Maryland, not run for profit, and formed with an explicit commitment to openness in academic writing. They are still in early days, but appear to be building a promising successor community to SSRN.

It is also important to remember that your work does not need to be restricted to any one venue. Try SocArXiv, but also see if you can host your work in an institutional repository or on a personal website. Make your work available wherever it can best reach your readers. It is also worth protesting the practices that would restrict your work’s availability and reach by leaving the services adopting them. If the reports about SSRN’s new practices are accurate, then it may be time to leave SSRN and adopt more author-friendly alternatives. Authors, tell us about your experiences with SSRN and other repositories by sending a note to info@authorsalliance.org.

After Reversion: Tracking Down Digital Copies

Posted May 20, 2016

After you get your rights back with Understanding Rights Reversion, how will you make your work newly available? The internet offers no shortage of ways to disseminate your work, but it’s still not necessarily easy to see your work successfully placed in all the channels you would like. Authors Alliance is committed to helping its members take full advantage of the digital age’s promise for their recovered works, and this online guide is part of a series designed to help them with that goal.

Last updated: 2016-10-13

So you have your rights back, and have big dreams about what you’ll do next. Release your work as an open access title—something that was perhaps unimaginable when it was originally published? Maybe convert it into an “enhanced” electronic version? Update it for release as a new edition?

Before doing any of these, you will need a digital version of the text. Do you have one? If not, don’t panic: there’s more than one way to get your work back out there.

Step 1: Can your publisher provide a copy?

As we stress in Understanding Rights Reversion, recovering rights to an out-of-print or otherwise unavailable title does not have to be an adversarial or acrimonious process. While your publisher is not likely under an obligation to furnish you with any digital copies in their possession, they might nevertheless do so out of goodwill.

Contract Drafting Tip: you can include a commitment from the publisher to furnish you with digital copies of your work in the case of a reversion. Consider doing so!

Your own word processing files, or those recovered from your publisher, will be the easiest and best way to make your reverted work available because modern files can be painlessly converted to the most popular e-reading formats. But there’s still hope even if you don’t have that advantage.

Step 2: Find and “unlock” other existing digital versions

Authors Alliance has written many times before about how mass digitization efforts benefit authors by making their work more discoverable. But there’s an additional advantage for authors looking for digital copies of their work: a scanned copy of the document might already exist as the result of a mass digitization effort. Authors with the necessary rights can often work with these projects to see their works “unlocked” and made newly available.

Have documentation regarding your rights reversion on hand to demonstrate your ownership of the necessary rights, and then consider tracking down copies from some of these existing collections:

HathiTrust is a digital library partnership of dozens of academic libraries, containing millions of titles indexed for full-text search. While in-copyright titles are not viewable, individual rights holders can change the availability of their works by filling out a simple permissions form, available here.

In addition to opting to make your work available, the HathiTrust permissions form also helps authors to apply a Creative Commons license to their work. For more information on why you might want to use a Creative Commons license, and the ins and outs of the various choices, take a look at Chapter 4 of our guide, Understanding Open Access.

The HathiTrust process is a simple way to both make your work available, and to gain access to a pre-existing digital copy. Authors Alliance members Robert Darnton, John Kingdon, Joseph Nye, Stephen Sugarman, and others have taken this route.

Google Books is the world’s largest book scanning effort, currently containing tens of millions of volumes. As with HathiTrust, Google does not make in-copyright books available to the public, but instead allows their text to be searched. And, as with HathiTrust, authors who have reverted rights can make their work available through the Google Books service. However, Google’s process is a little more difficult.

First, you’ll need to be a “partner” at the Google Books Partner Center, essentially, signing up as a publisher on the Google platform. Please note that, as of the time of writing, Google is not allowing new sign ups for this platform. However, some of our members have nevertheless been able to secure accounts after talking with Google support.

Once set up with an account, support should be able to link your partner account with your work, and make it available on the terms you request.

Finally, The Internet Archive, the internet’s own non-profit library, is another source that might have a scanned copy of your book. There is not yet a formal process for unlocking books on the Internet Archive, but stay tuned—we’ll be updating this post with more information as we work with them to make the process easy for authors. In the meantime, try reaching out directly to the Archive at info@archive.org with a link to the page containing your work and let them know that you’ve recovered rights and would like to see it unlocked.

Step 3: Scan and OCR your book

If you cannot find an existing digital copy, you can still make one. There are any number of book scanning services out there (a quick web search will turn up many), and the Internet Archive can also both non-destructively scan and host your books.

You may also request that Google scan your book at one of its Library Partners.  According to HathiTrust, you may use this form to make the request. If the book is scanned at a Library Partner that participates in HathiTrust, it will also end up in HathiTrust, at which point you will need to complete the HathiTrust permissions agreement.

When scanning, there are a few things to consider. Some book scanning processes are destructive, resulting in the loss of the book. Not something to do with a rare copy!

You will also want to consider quality. Scanning is simply photographing pages. Those pages can (and should) undergo “optical character recognition” or “OCR,” where the computer works to identify and read text on the page. Better quality scanning helps with quality OCR, which will help give you a more usable, discoverable, and readable document.

Have further questions? Stick around! Further posts in this series will explore where and how works can be posted in order to maximize their discoverability and usability. You can also always email us at reversions@authorsalliance.org, or join us as a member to get our latest updates.

Elsevier buying SSRN and the future of open scholarship in the social sciences

Posted May 18, 2016

In a move signalling further consolidation in scholarly communication, Elsevier announced yesterday its purchase of SSRN, a popular working paper and pre-print repository used by a large number of our members. For these members and for those in many scholarly fields, SSRN has been one of the most important platforms for publicly and openly accessible scholarship—the go-to source for posting and finding the latest work. Given Elsevier’s history of creating obstacles to open scholarship, Authors Alliance is among those concerned about the long-term effects of the acquisition.

Elsevier and SSRN have stated that the changes ahead won’t alter SSRN’s “ethos.” These assurances are welcome, but they are not enough. We will be asking Elsevier for explicit commitments to maintaining or improving those aspects of SSRN that have made it work for open scholarship. And we will be taking this opportunity to suggest that our members take affirmative steps now to ensure that their work is made available on their terms regardless of what happens to SSRN—or any other individual platform—in the future.

We will have more updates to come on both these aspects of the SSRN acquisition—watch this space for more. And please let us know your thoughts by emailing us at info@authorsalliance.org or tweeting us at @Auths_Alliance.

Update, 2016-05-19

The principles we are asking SSRN to uphold are now available here.

Moving Toward a “Moral Right” of Attribution in U.S. Copyright Law

Posted May 4, 2016

Authors Alliance Executive Director Michael Wolfe

When Authors Alliance launched two years ago with its Principles and Proposals for Copyright Reform, one of the reforms we endorsed was support for a formal “moral right” of attribution. In that document, we said:

The law should recognize the right of authors to be acknowledged as creators of our works. This is especially important for those of us who create in order to contribute to knowledge and culture. Attribution serves not only our interests as authors, but also the reading public’s interest in knowing whose works they are consuming and society’s interest in an accurate record of the intellectual heritage of humankind.

A fitting way for Authors Alliance to celebrate its second birthday was to serve as an invited speaker at Authors, Attribution, and Integrity: Examining Moral Rights in the United States, a symposium organized by the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, D.C. on April 18.

Although you might expect otherwise, copyright law in the United States does not provide authors with the right to be acknowledged as the creator of their works. The United States has long resisted adoption of so-called “moral rights,” including the right of attribution, mostly because of objections from copyright industry firms, not from authors. However, there has been increasing momentum in particular around our adoption of a right of attribution. The Symposium reflected this renewed energy, and a building consensus toward the idea that a right of attribution could work here, to the benefit of our creative economy.

The Copyright Office announced that it will be seeking public comments on moral rights issues very soon. Authors Alliance plans to submit formal comments, but below is a summary of some of the discussion at the April 18 symposium.

On the topic of attribution, two central themes were explored. First, what would an American attribution right look like? Second, what do authors and the public stand to gain from an attribution right?

Continue reading

Authors Alliance Celebrates Fair Use and Fair Dealing Week!

Posted February 22, 2016

This week is Fair Use and Fair Dealing Week, a time to celebrate, reflect on, and explain these important rights. Authors Alliance is pleased to participate, together with the week’s organizers at the Association of Research Libraries and dozens of other participating organizations.

While fair use rights are also valued by educators, consumers, and technologists, they play a particularly important role for authors. Fair use provides the essential creative freedom to comment on, criticize, build on, and transform others’ works, and helps to ensure that copyright serves rather than hinders free expression.

But, as our own Pamela Samuelson illustrated last year, fair use continues to benefit authors after their works are created, helping preservation efforts by archives and libraries, and enabling new discovery tools that help them reach readers.

While most creators intuitively understand many fair use principles, being familiar with the law is important to fully and properly exercising its rights. Now is the perfect time to brush up, using the information posted at the Fair Use and Fair Dealing Week HQ, or at our own Fair Use FAQ.

And in celebration of these essential rights, we’ll be posting new items exploring different fair use, its importance, and its future throughout the week. Stay tuned!

Help Authors Alliance Thrive in 2016

Posted December 30, 2015

As we look forward to the new year, Authors Alliance needs the financial support of its members and allies. Will you consider making a donation to help us reach our fundraising goal?

Since our launch in May 2014, we have been dedicated to demystifying copyright and empowering creators of all kinds to share their work in meaningful ways. 2015 has been a banner year for Authors Alliance and its mission. With your support, we:

With lots more still to do, we’re making big plans for the new year—new services for our members, new resources for the public, and more tireless advocacy for authorship in the public interest. But we need your continued support to make it happen.

There’s still time to help Authors Alliance reach its year-end fundraising goal. If you find our advocacy and resources useful, please consider making a donation to enable our ongoing work.

donation button for Authors Alliance

Authors Alliance is a 501(c)(3) organization that depends on public support. Gifts are tax-deductible in the United States according to IRS regulations. Gifts in any amount are welcome. If you have any questions about making a gift, please contact us at info@authorsalliance.org.