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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. (A bit like how music companies forced people to pay millions for songs that it turned out were in the public domain.)

Summary: The CLA can only licence and sell rights assigned to them. So, for example, when they are extracting money via the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) it should only apply to a whitelist of rights they are authorised to licence. But that isn't how they work - it is incredibly difficult for the average user at a photocopier to browse a list of authorised titles and authors. So their fudged approach is to play up what the licences they sell can do, and to collect money from what is actually copied, often illegally (discovered via occasional surveys). So the ALCS ends up with money from licensing work that they had no legal right to licence.

Afterwards the ALCS may use the results of samples to try and contact a creator and offer them money after a cut for "admin" - admin the author never asked the ALCS to do, via selling rights the ALCS had no permission to sell - and the money is withheld from the author unless they agree to give ALCS their cut and to join them (thereby agreeing to let them licence future work, and restricting things to CLA licence). So if an author doesn't want to join the ALCS, or agree on the ALCS stance on the issues that the ALCS campaign for, the ALCS will either keep that money or pass it on to other authors - money they had no legal entitlement to collect. I'm pretty sure if I licensed rights belonging to someone else without their permission, then tried to pay them minus my cut, I'd be taken to court pretty quickly. See what a mess it is? 

It gets worse. The CLA have a blacklist of "excluded works" (that is fiddly to find, or get on) but that is misleading - they want to imply all authors are on one list or another, the whitelist or the excluded blacklist. But many - maybe the bulk of authors writing today - are not on either of those lists. And yet the CLA/ALCS will be collecting money from the authors' work being copied. This is why I generally disagree with licensing societies. I would rather the law made more exceptions to copyright so people can do more with a work, doing away with all that admin and sampling and licensing and staff time..

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.


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.

Personally, I think authors would be financially better off if there was no ALCS and PLR (which comes to a few hundred a year for many authors, but a lot less - or nothing - for a great majority) and instead the Government just removed tax from e-books. Then authors would make a heck of a lot more money (20% more on every e-book sale - I sold a few thousand last year), and there would be zero admin.

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.

Update: You may also want to see my later post, Copyright Restrictions On Books.
Also, this is my super-short summary: the legitimacy and legality of ALCS is unclear. I'm not a fan of them because I am fairly open with what I allow with my books, which means I can't allow the CLA to licence my works (their licences are more restrictive), and therefore any money the ALCS collected from licensing my works without my permission would be illegally collected. A minefield, but they realise few authors have the resources to go to court over it.