Finding Authors: The Importance of Establishing an Online Licensing System for Copyrighted Works

Posted by Michael Capobianco for Writer Beware

The U. S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) recently held a public meeting on “Facilitating the Development of the Online Licensing Environment for Copyrighted Works.” The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the National Writers Union, and the American Society of Authors and Journalists submitted a paper for consideration listing what, in our estimation, are the points that any online licensing system must recognize if it is to be effective.

“Discoverability” is a key component of any such system, which requires not only that works must have unambiguous identifiers, but that the identifiers point unambiguously to the authors of the works rather than to publishers. Any such system must also recognize that the author is the best, and in many cases only, source of information about the ownership of rights. More and more books are self-published; publishing companies aren’t involved at all, and any system that relies on them will be incomplete. A publisher-centric system will also assign rights incorrectly, especially considering that publishers have begun to claim ebook rights for works even though the contracts for those works do not mention them.

SFWA has been interested in developing a way to find authors for a long time. The failed Google Books Settlement and subsequent developments call into question what an orphan work is. If a defining characteristic is that the author can’t be found, clearly, then, a system that facilitates finding authors is necessary before works can definitively be declared orphans.

SFWA has made recommendations concerning orphan works to the Copyright Office several times now, focusing on the creation of a national Author Information Directory (AID), a database that would function as the source of unambiguous identifiers for authors as well as provide contact information for negotiations about licensing rights. SFWA feels that creating this database should be left to government rather than for-profit entities, and that a database that allows direct updates from the authors themselves would be well within the Copyright Office's capabilities.

As nice as it would be to let Google and Amazon worry about providing discoverability for works and then the authors of those works, it’s clearly not part of their business plans. Amazon in particular has shown no enthusiasm for adopting the ISBN as a standard, and its proprietary identifier is unlikely to be used by other book distributors. Tellingly, there were no Amazon representatives at the USPTO meeting.

Right now, the primary international database of author identifiers is the International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI), about which Writer Beware has blogged before, and the primary book identifier is the International Standard Book Number (ISBN). There is also the Digital Object Identifier (DOI), which theoretically could be used as an identifier for short stories, blog posts, and other text not covered by ISBNs.

While these databases are theoretically expandable to be the comprehensive system of databases that would “facilitate the development of an online licensing environment,” none of them incorporate author contact information to the degree necessary to unambiguously identify specific rightsholders; and each has problems that discourage authors, especially self-published authors, from participating. Most obvious is cost. ISBNs, for example, are quite expensive when purchased in the quantity needed by many self-published authors. And while many traditionally published authors have been automatically included in the ISNI database, those who have not--including almost all solely self-published authors--are required to pay a fee. It is obvious to us that any system that requires authors to pay a fee for an unnecessary service will fail. At the very least, we feel that authors’ groups such as SFWA, ASJA, and NWU can act to facilitate author participation and greatly reduce or entirely eliminate those fees.

Our groups will continue to represent authors at meetings of this kind, where it often seems thta authors’ and other creators’ concerns are treated as an afterthought.



Submission of American Society of Authors and Journalists, National Writers Union, and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to USPTO’s public meeting,“Facilitating the Development of the Online Licensing Environment for Copyrighted Works,” April 1, 2015.

All rights ultimately derive from the author of a work.

1. The author is the best source of bibliographic metadata about his or her works.

2. The author is the best, and in many cases only, source of rights-related metadata about his or her works. In many cases, publishers do not know what rights have been assigned where or may be interpreting their contracted rights too broadly, especially concerning electronic rights.

3. Any database of identifiers and/or rights must allow the input of the authors or it will be inadequate and contain many errors and omissions.

4. An identifiers/rights database that charges authors a fee for inclusion is counterproductive, and will not include the majority of self-published works.

5. Because an ISBN identifies an edition, not a work, the status or availability of the ISBN says nothing about the status of the work in other editions. Many works are out of print in the original paper editions with ISBNs, but available in non-ISBN self-published digital editions. A consistent system for identifying works, not editions, is needed.

6. A growing percentage of e-book licensing transactions (often erroneously referred to as "sales") and e-book "best-sellers" (ditto) are not only self-published but also self-distributed. Only the authors can report information about these licenses.

7. In the U.S., the current systems for creating identifiers for works and authors (ISBN and ISNI) charge fees. In the case of ISBN, the fee can be quite substantial. As a result, many new books, especially self-published e-books, are not included.

8. In many other countries, the cost of creating ISBNs and ISNIs is borne by the government, and that should also be the case in the U.S. In Canada, by comparison, ISBNs are free for Canadian citizens.

9. The cost of creating an Internet-based database that allows authors to register their works and provide metadata would be relatively small. The result would be a considerable improvement over the current system. Such a database would help in the search for the authors of potentially orphaned works, among its many other benefits.

10. Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) has proposed the structure for an Author Information Directory (AID) as part of its Orphan Works White Paper that could serve as a template for such a database. (The white paper can be viewed here; the AID is discussed starting on page 4.) Rights-related data fields could easily be added to the AID.

10. Writers’ groups can not only act as intermediaries with such a system for their members, but already maintain lists of contact information for their members, and in some cases, contact information for the estates of authors in their genre. Groups such as SFWA, National Writers Union, and American Society of Journalists stand ready to assist in any effort to formalized the identifier/rights databases proposed here. A large number of creator organizations can be contacted via the Authors Coalition of America.

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