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The Value of Our Work, Part 4: Donations

Reading back over my previous discussion about valuing creator's work properly, I've been pondering the correct way to ask someone to provide something for free. Specifically, I've been thinking about the request I had received to allow a nonprofit to reprint a story of mine in exchange for exposure. And I asked myself, if they knew from the outset that they couldn't offer me any money at all, was there a way they could have asked me that would have led to my agreement?

I already noted that I would have been more amenable if the man who made the request had started by asking me what I would charge as a reprint fee, or if he had said that they didn't have a lot of money but had offered me a token sum. That would have acknowledged from the outset his understanding that my work had value to it. But then I thought of one other approach he could have taken. I can't be sure this would have done the trick, but I think I would have been receptive had he said the following:

"I'm sorry to say that I can't offer payment. Would you be willing to donate your work?"

I would have been a lot more comfortable with this kind of request. Why? Because the original "offer" implies that "exposure" is a valid form of payment. But the request as phrased above makes it clear that the publisher understands that the work has value, simply by using the word "donation." And it implies a level of respect for the creator and the work that the offer of payment by exposure does not.

Of course, that mostly works if the asker is running a nonprofit or a charity, and if the writer can afford it.

Writers do donate things all the time, such as signed copies of their work or the chance for a person to appear in a book, to charity auctions. But people need to keep in mind that just because someone is a writer doesn't mean that they can actually afford to make donations. The writers who can are usually ones more famous and better off than I am, and yet there are a lot of people out there who seem to think that if you're a fiction writer you're automatically very well off, even if they don't see your name on the Times bestseller list.

I wouldn't be surprised to see someone like Stephen King on an episode of Celebrity Jeopardy, trying to raise money for a good cause (and if Wikipedia is to be trusted, King did in fact appear on the show to raise money for the Bangor Public Library in 1995). But most of us who are writers would rather appear on Jeopardy for our own benefit, so we can avoid missing our mortgage payments.

If you do approach a writer for a donation, and you're turned down, you ought to be gracious about it. When I was just starting out, I got an email from some school asking me to make a donation of a personal item for a charity auction. (These requests are a lot more common than people realize.) I emailed back, explaining that I was a teacher myself (low-paid, of course, as many teachers are) and had agreed with my employer that I would only make such donations for my own school's auction. The other school's representative emailed me back indignantly, saying that he had never heard of such an arrangement and casting aspersions on my moral character because I wouldn't part with one of my possessions to help them out.

You can be sure that I crossed that school off my list of places I would ever help out if I found myself in a position to do so.

So let's go back to the question of Google and the artists that spurred these articles in the first place. Would it have been better or more appropriate for Google to ask the artists to donate their work instead of offering exposure? I would say no, that Google isn't in a position to ask artists to donate their work, for the obvious reason. Google isn't a charity; it's a company that makes a large profit every year and is looking to increase its own profits with wider distribution of their Chrome browser. In the end, I return to the point I made at the beginning: if Google thinks that the artists' work has value, they should be willing to match that value with payment.

Comments

Re: As to substance

"If I am reading correctly, you are objecting to the idea that authors (and other artists) should automatically trade reproduction rights for exposure."

Not quite. I'm objecting to the idea that a corporation that makes a billion dollars a year should think an offer of "exposure" is sufficient, especially when they have obviously offered other artists money in the past. I object to the idea that a person who draws a salary doing work for a nonprofit should assume that a writer would be happy to hand over rights to their work for exposure, without even acknowledging first that the writer makes a living from the work the same way that anyone else makes a living from their work.

Re: As to substance

I think it is not so much an offer as a policy defense. That is to say, it is not addressed to authors but Congress and (to the extent courts make law) the courts. "Do not treat this as free riding, because authors as a class get exposure." Which brings us back to the point I was making: some authors (and the scope of the class is large) want to facilitate things like search or Google Books. Others in the class prefer to maintain greater control. In particular, a number of folks agree with you that it is fundamentally unfair and wrong for Google to make money from collecting others people's copyrighted materials and making them accessible to users.

When we break this down, we discover some problems. Google and other search engines derive their value from their ability to provide a search of all publicly available information (where "publicly available" is defined as "findable by the search engine"). But any individual contributor of information contributes an infinitesimal part of this value. But, like a lottery, Google and other search engines can create enormous value to individuals without getting proportionate value in return.

Nor are search engines getting a "free ride" in the sense that they do not put lots of money and effort into maintaining their search technology and ad insert technology. True, creators of the content don't get paid. But it is still an open question whether they ought to at all, since the "catalog right" is not generally considered a right held by a copyright holder. At best, what is at issue here is a right of publicity. One of the questions when considering whether to expand the copyright in this instance is how the equities balance. Google and others point to exposure as an example that benefits flow to rights holders as well as t themselves. It is not a bargain, anymore than musicians can make this choice for terrestrial radio. It is a policy debate.
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