Saturday, 31 October 2015

Friday, 30 October 2015

NaNoWriMo 2015

Today's delivery of vegan organic treats - is it enough for NaNoWriMo?

This year I signed up to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for the first time. You have the month of November to write 50,000 words. They don't have to be good, but they do have to be words.

I have a spartan profile on the site, and you can do some kind of contacty thing on there I think. Feel free to add me as a friend.

It is good timing. I have 30,000 words of horror short stories written: if I write another 50K in November, then cut out 10K in edits and snips, I'll have another 70,000 word horror book! Oh, the pain and agony, it shall be magnificent.

Some people write every day, some weekdays only, some weekends only - there are ideas for scheduling word counts here. I quite like the schedule "Write 50,000 words on 1st November. Done."

I'll try and include updates on the blog throughout the month, but if it goes quiet it's because I'm working on that. I am also away for a week on an Arvon Foundation writing course so will have to squeeze the NaNoWriMo around that. I don't think I'll have access to the Internet at the Arvon centre, so you definitely won't hear from me that week. But I will be working. Oh yessirree.

Any of you signed up for NaNoWriMo? What are your plans? I'm getting started with some warm up exercises, just wrote out some ideas including this extract:

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Thursday, 29 October 2015

An Interview With Chris Turner


Karl: "Since it is nearly Halloween I decided to have a guest interview with someone who knows all about horror: Chris Turner."

Chris sits there in a polo-neck shirt and jeans, a picture of subdued menace as he scowls: "No, my name's Chris Jones."

Karl: "But I thought-"

Leaning forward and staring me in the eye. "Jones."

Karl: "Sorry. Chris Jones."

Nod.

Karl: "You survived a visit to Ynys Diawl, off the coast of Anglesey in Wales. Storms, missing people, madness ... that must have been pretty horrifying."

Chris: "I've had worse."

Karl: "Didn't people try to kill and torture you?"

Shrug. "Like I said, I've had worse."

Karl: "How did you feel about me turning the events of your visit into a survival horror novel?"

Chris: "I'm still waiting for the money you promised."

Karl: "So am I ... I thought I'd sell more copies of Turner."

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Friday, 23 October 2015

Asking Questions


I pointed out the ambiguity of "if not" constructions this week. I thought I was done with grammatical posts, but last night I was reading Catching Fire, and even though I am enjoying the book it includes one of the writing/editing errors that leaps off the page and slaps me in the face, inducing rage and spluttering. The image above gives you an idea of what went on in my brain as I read that section.

Yes, it is when someone "says" a question.

You do not "say" questions. You ask them.

You can say any statement that isn't a question (or shout it, or scream it, or whisper it, or mutter it - though don't overuse descriptors like that).

Bear this in mind, otherwise questions will be asked about your speech tags...
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Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Book Of All Flesh


With any anthology you'll have a mix of stories you like, and stories you are less bothered about. So with The Book Of All Flesh. In this collection of 25 zombie horror stories there were 12 that I really appreciated, enjoyed or admired, which is a greater success ratio than many other anthologies I have read. That's praise. Many of the other 13 stories I enjoyed, just not quite as much.

My favourites were:

- Consumption by Steve Eller (terse and fittingly emotionally dead)
- Susan by Robin D. Laws (incredibly nasty)
- Number of the Beast by Kenneth Lightner (interesting framing)
- Trinkets by Tobias S. Buckell (an unexpected approach to zombies)
- Prometheus Unwound by Matt Forbeck (interesting framing and concept)
- Salvation by L.H. Maynard and M.P.N. Sims (very British feel and rounded story)
- The Other Side of Theory by Daniel Ksenych (coldly scientific horror)
- Inspecting the Workers by Jim C. Hines (classic zombie fiction of science backfiring)
- Last Resort by Michael Laimo (desert-sparse writing that implies a lot)
- Same Night, Different Farmhouse by Gregory G. Kurczynski (pulp nastiness)
- The Cold, Gray Fingers of My Love by Pete D. Manison (unexpected and moon-cold)
- Scenes From a Foreign Horror Video, with Zombies and Tasteful Nudity by Mark McLaughlin (imaginative and dreamlike)

In general the collection was well edited (though there is a particular glaring zombie fiction error which appeared once here: "zombie hoards". HORDES. ZOMBIE HORDES. Hordes are large groups. Hoards are secret stores.)

Overall a mix of styles, settings, tones and outcomes gave the collection real variety. If you like zombies, you'll like this.
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Monday, 19 October 2015

If Not


"Karl was a great boardgamer, if not the best in the village."

So what does that mean?

"Karl was a great boardgamer, but not the best in the village."
or
"Karl was a great boardgamer, perhaps even the best in the village."

They're both valid interpretations, even though they're opposites (in one I'm not the best; in the other I may be the best). "If not" is an inherently ambiguous construction - so avoid using it unless you intend to be ambiguous. Instead use alternative constructions which make your meaning clear. Readers will thank you for it.

Further reading:
P.S. I am quite good at boardgames.
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Monday, 12 October 2015

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Licensing And Collecting Societies

Image from Gratisography

As well as income from sales there are other possible sources of money for writers. One of them is Public Lending Right (PLR), which is handy, free, and legally established. If you have books in public libraries you might as well register.

Another is the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), which is quite different. It’s not established by a law (i.e. they are an intermediary commercial body, a "collecting agency" for paying members). Nor are they required for legal protection - the law of copyright already means people can't re-use your work without permission.

Maybe I worry about nothing, but when I was advised to register with the ALCS I felt slightly uneasy, and had to examine why this was so. Some other authors I spoke to seemed comfortable with signing up to the ALCS and thought it strange that I wouldn't; even more had nothing to do with the ALCS, or didn't know about it. Very few had thought deeply about the role of collecting and licensing societies, which isn't surprising, since our primary occupation should be ... well, writing. Still, I had this feeling, and suspected part of it was down to my prejudices as an ex-librarian. After thinking about it for a wee while I came up with some reasons why I felt this unease. Oh Mighty Mousse-Lord, this might be a big one.

1. Collecting Societies Seem To Be Collecting Money They Aren’t Entitled To

The main reason is that none of the collecting societies represent all creators in their sphere. For example the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation does not represent all films made, yet sells licences and collects money as if they do. We have a similar thing with music licensing bodies - if you own a public venue you're pushed to buy PRS for Music and a licence to play background music (PPL), even though neither licence actually covers all music that is made, and there is lots available that is excluded from their licences. Likewise the ALCS does not represent all authors. It is a membership organisation, and only pays money to members.

All writers?

Yet the licences sold and wording used by collecting and licensing organisations often implies that they do represent "everyone", presumably to make licences seem better value for money, and to pretend that they are shouting with a louder and better-supported voice when lobbying. For example, the ALCS website metadata says they are "the British collecting society for all writers". This is carefully-chosen wording, implying at a quick glance that they represent us all; however, they don't represent us all, they only represent paying members, a subset. If challenged they would say they mean they are “for all writers” in the sense of being open to membership by all writers, which is a very different thing from representing all writers. </quibble>

Where does the money come from? As one example, 65% of the ALCS income derives from the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) - which the ALCS set up with the Publishers Licensing Society (PLS) [source]. The basic business of the CLA is selling licences to organisations to re-use author's work - regardless of whether that author is anything to do with the ALCS, or has given permission for the CLA to include their work in CLA licences.

It is a similar situation for other income streams, such as money from the levy added to the costs of all recording and copying equipment. Again, they are receiving money for global copying agreements as a whole, even thought the ALCS only represent and distribute to members.

The ALCS "Online royalties checker” says:
“Enter the title of your work into the search box below and
see if we're currently holding any money for you."
It’s weird because they have no right to be
"holding any money" for authors who aren’t members,
just as the CLA had no right to it either.

On to the CLA. They generally categorise the works as either "included in their licence" (i.e. the author/publisher/creator is registered with them) or "specifically excluded" (which involves checking various lists to find out more, such as these and these and their homepage search tool). Firstly, the thousands of students using an institution's photocopiers/scanners can't check all those lists each time, it is an impractical idea, so the fact that a work is excluded does nothing to stop it from being copied - the CLA licence may even do the opposite, since it creates a false sense of security. After all, their web pages include text like "All our licences permit the copying from books".

Should that be "some books"?

Lots of focus on what you can do,
but little mention of all the authors
who have no connection to the CLA.

Secondly, the CLA totally neglect to mention a third category - authors who are neither included nor excluded. My work is not included in their licence; nor have I contacted them to exclude it. Yet the CLA continue to sell their licences and make money from this ignorable "third category" that acts as the elephant in the room. These are the people who opt out of the CLA system (or don't know about it), whose work is often copied based on the payments made to the CLA, but who see none of the money. When trying to sell their licences the CLA's wording is much more about how inclusive they are.

"The licence fees collected are then passed on to the copyright owners - the authors, publishers and visual artists - that we represent. [...] We undertake royalties data exercises with licensed organisations to help us pay the authors, publishers and visual creators whose work is being copied."
CLA site. Careful avoidance of the many authors they don't represent with their licences.

In many cases people may be copying within legal limits; or copying work that the CLA is not licensed to cover. But because it is so difficult (perhaps impossible) to find out what the licence includes and excludes, it then becomes difficult or impossible to avoid breaking the law. And so the fear of litigation pushes more organisations into taking out the licences. Which leads me to ...

2. Aggressive Licensing

In my career as a librarian and adviser to librarians I often had to deal with collecting societies. And it is an awkward feeling as I picture heavy-handed letters and emails, often threatening, talking about all the crippling legal implications and "risk" of "non-compliance" or "serious infringement" if you don't pay for a licence. All this, even though in many cases the licence wasn't required because the law already allowed for certain educational exemptions for Fair Use.

The CLA "has a compliance arm, Copywatch, that works to prevent illegal copying".
Yes, the site includes a "Give information" snitch form for grassing up your organisation:
"You can provide the information confidentially here".
The post-millennial culture of fear, right here.

And so organisations would surrender out of a kind of fear, or from the legal and informational complications and obfuscation, or maybe just treating the licences as an extra form of insurance. It always reminded me of the TV licensing people, which adds to my unease.

Ah, the TV licensing people. I've lost track of the many threatening letters I have had off them over the years. I've told them online that I had no TV - the letters kept coming. I filled in forms - the letters kept coming. I sent them back - the letters kept coming. As someone who hates spam, junkmail, and threatening legal letters it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. (I should add that I'm not breaking the law, I genuinely haven't owned a TV for over 25 years).

Back to the various licensing societies. No doubt the individual artists, musicians, authors, actors and so on have no idea how heavy-handed these kinds of bodies can be "on their behalf". But the business model of a collecting society is based on acquiring rights-holding members (since the society has no legal right to material/content themselves), then aggressively selling licences to use that material.

Litigious societies

I had contacts in libraries across the UK, in all sectors, and it was quite common to hear about them being hounded by licensing and collecting agencies, seeing chunks of their budget going on that rather than books, staffing, learning resources, education, and opening times. And that is a key difference from PLR (Public Lending Right, mentioned at the start of this post). PLR is paid by central UK Government, so doesn't impact on library budgets. But licensing and collecting societies go after libraries and educational institutions directly, asking them to pay, so it does impact on their budgets. In one case a licensing society had been really hammering libraries, sending letters arguing that since they had computers for public use the PCs could in theory be used to access media (films/music) illegally, and it would count as a public broadcast, so libraries should take out extra licences... It seems nonsensical to the average person but this is what seemed to go on behind the scenes.

What annoys me, as someone who supports education and information sharing, is that in most cases I'd have said to the organisations, "Sure, use my material, use it for free, no need for a license - I'm just happy to support you and let you re-use some of my words; maybe I'll even sell more books because of it." I'm sure I'm not the only author who would take that approach. But instead the organisations are pushed into taking out licences they might not need.

Maybe I'm not being understanding enough here. I always try to be a balanced and reasonable person. Maybe licensing societies feel they need to do the hard sell simply because the current situation is so confusing, with conflicting legal advice, lack of clarity over Fair Use, a profusion of licensing bodies and licences and so on meaning they worry that people just don't know. Unfortunately, when everyone shouts at you it doesn't make things clearer; and whenever you're talking about legal licences being clear and comprehensible you're asking for trouble.

(As an aside, I once copied and pasted into a Word document a selection of the End User License Agreements (EULA) or Terms & Conditions I was forced to agree to over a five month period. It certainly wasn't every relevant agreement/T&C/licence, and nor was it from some specialist sphere like work. This was just from being a normal person using my PC and installing a few games and bits of software. The agreements over that period amounted to 331,993 words, or 592 pages of dense single-spaced legalese. Seems ridiculous doesn't it? No-one can realistically be agreeing to all that; if I'd included licences I had to deal with from my work in libraries it would probably have tripled that figure or more...)

3. Lobbying For Stricter Copyright Restrictions

I think copyright laws are currently too strict. I campaign for things to be more open (e.g. anti-DRM, removing some of the copyright restrictions, not always agreeing with bodies that claim to speak for authors and so on). I'm obviously not saying it should be a free-for-all - I don't want people copying my full books and selling them, or passing them off as their own. I wouldn't mind people quoting from them though - yet currently that is illegal except in certain limited circumstances. I think people should be able to quote (as long as they fully reference source) from songs, articles, books, poems - without having to track down rights holders and get permission, or pay. It's free advertising, it keeps the words and work quoted in the public consciousness, and it's only snippets, not the whole work. In my time I have read a huge amount of classic (and classical) fiction, where it was common to quote from other works and writers, share knowledge of them, promote them, widening knowledge and appreciation of the thing quoted - nowadays in the UK you couldn't write such a work without having to track down rightsholders, get permission, pay, and probably re-negotiate and do it all again if you print more copies, do a new edition, change format (e.g. audiobook) and so on. So nowadays it is easier to just avoid that negotiation, administration and paywall nightmare. The common attitude of publishers to their writers when, for example, a quote from a song is used is to just strip it out. "It isn't worth it."

Licensing and collecting societies are often involved with legal lobbying, campaigning, pushing for tougher copyright laws, allowing fewer exceptions - and that makes me uneasy. As one example, you'll find details of ALCS lobbying here - just imagine how much more the big multimedia-supported licensing agencies do! The ALCS say:

"Our varied lobbying and campaigning work encompasses everything from press campaigns to gain media coverage for issues of topical importance, to direct lobbying of government on vital matters of policy which directly affect writers. Through our lobbying and campaigning work ALCS aims both to protect the existing secondary rights of UK writers and, in this digital era, secure recognition for their rights in new and developing areas of content provision, for example digital downloads."

"Protect existing secondary rights" = not allow any relaxation in current law.
"Secure recognition for rights in new and developing areas" = make laws stricter/get new laws in place.

Mmm.

All writers?

Aside #2: I imagine very few ALCS members have read the contents of all those submissions made in their name (after all, who has time to do that?), yet many authors do believe current copyright restrictions are too strict (including biggies such as Paulo Coelho and Neil Gaiman).

Aside #3: as with most organisations, licensing and collecting societies in general can act in their own self-interests too, wanting to make themselves indispensable "for the benefit of our members", kind of like how the shareholder system acts to put profit before goodness.

Aside #4: it's an issue with joining any organisation/society/union/alliance. It doesn't matter if it is the Automobile Association (AA) or the Society for Gentlemanly Pursuits. Membership pages always talk about the "benefits of membership" and "what we do for you". But there is another side, not made overt - what you do for the organisation. If they lobby and campaign then their perceived strength is made up of the membership numbers. By being as member, you are adding to that strength. But the problem is if they are lobbying or campaigning on an issue you disagree with, you are then acting against your own goals. It's why - (if I owned a car, which is as unlikely as me owning a TV) - I wouldn't join the AA, who campaign for more roads criss-crossing through dwindling green spaces, but would join the Ethical Transport Association (ETA) instead. You join something, you put your faith in it. Don't let your good faith get used for things you don't agree with. Membership is a form of legitimisation that works both ways.

4. Complication

Maybe this is just an unease at modern life. Who knows. But I think the profusion of licensing and collecting societies makes many things more complicated. Here's a few examples.

  • The licences these societies sell are in addition to what the law says - the law would work even if these societies didn't exist. And in some cases the licences are sold even when the actions done (such as a school quoting from a book) would be legal even without the licence. They are additional complications, wordage and administration.
  • I suspect that because licensing societies exist, many creators are now less likely to see income from commercial re-use of their work. Here's an example. The CLA sell a licence to Big Research Laboratory. The laboratory looks at the licence, decides it is now okay to make use of my future work that touches on their area of expertise, and distributes copies of it (within the CLA licence) as part of their welcome pack to new staff. The CLA has that money. They pass some of it on to the ALCS. It never gets to me; instead the dribbles of cash just benefit the CLA and ALCS. If the CLA and ALCS didn't exist then Big Research Laboratory would contact me and get permission to re-use the material in their pack and pay me directly. I would actually see the money then.
  • I've already talked about the complications of licensing above, while talking about End User License Agreements (lots of words to read), aggressive licensing (complications in understanding what is legal or not) and so on.
  • "Profusion of licensing and collecting societies" (section 2) - what did I mean? Well, just for one type of organisation (independent schools) in one country (England) there might be a need for more than ten licences from different licensing societies! Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA); The Educational Recording Agency (ERA); Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI); Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL); The Performing Right Society (PRS); Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (MCPS); Motion Picture Licensing Company (MPLC); Filmbankmedia (Public Video Screening Licence - PVS); Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA Media Access); PMLL (Schools Printed Music Licence - SPML). No, that list is not comprehensive of all licensing societies.
Please, no more of them... The ALCS.


"But Karl, what would you really want?"

Well, I suppose I'd want some relaxation of laws on things like copyright, so that licences from all the organisations wouldn't be necessary - the law would just allow for those educational uses, and the minimal Fair Use (and define Fair Use clearly). So that anyone could quote and reference (within limits) without needing to get permission or pay. Then there would be no need for a complex superstructure of various licences, exceptions, apportioning, membership, collecting societies, grading and so on, on top of the law - we would just have the law. It would be much simpler to know what we can do; would make information literacy and plagiarism teaching easier and therefore more effective; and would be a good balance between re-use and rewards for creativity, as well as saving all the money spent on this wonky infrastructure built to prop up unstable and wobbly law.

Or, second best, if we're forced down this wobbly road of law + licensing, at least get rid of the messy and wasteful situation we have now. Have a single organisation (combining PLR and various licensing bodies and so on), rather than different bodies for each type of right, and different sets of bodies for each country. Yep, a single institution to deal with this, not the Hydra which currently exists. Then creators only have the admin burden of registering their works with one place; and people wanting to re-use their creations beyond what the law allows only have one organisation to deal with.

I'll Shut Up Now

I should add that this is not directed at ALCS specifically (since they don't sell the licences, though they do gain money from licences sold by their partner organisation - a kind of splitting of function). It's unease about collecting societies in general, and their partners, though they do tend to have lots of connections with each other - just off the top of my head I can say that the ALCS helped set up the Copyright Licensing Agency and is a member of the Educational Recording Agency (ERA). It's the behaviour of this whole interconnected group of collecting and licensing societies that makes me uneasy, not any individual member.

And maybe I'm being unreasonable. Maybe I overlooked something obvious. Maybe I'll be forced to cave in one day. But when there is an issue where there are lots of assumptions that no-one seems to question, my ears prick up. And so I finally got to the bottom of why I was uneasy at the thought of working with a licensing and collecting society. Though I am pleased that the ALCS have a correctly-used apostrophe in their name.
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Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Monday, 5 October 2015

Saturday, 3 October 2015