The increasing global challenges to authors’ rights and livelihoods in many different spheres has had one very positive result: the formation of the International Authors Forum, an organisation whose membership consists of national author organisations from across the world, and which exists to ensure authors’ rights and interests are represented worldwide.Today I interview Katie Webb, Executive Administrator of the IAF, about the important work the IAF is doing for the cause of authors globally.
Katie Webb holds an MA in Medieval English from King’s College London and a diploma in EU, US and UK copyright law. She has worked extensively with British writer and authors’ rights campaigner Maureen Duffy. Since 2012 Katie has coordinated the International Authors Forum.
Note: All images are from the IAF website, and used with permission.
The IAF is a fantastic initiative, and feels like an idea whose time has really come. Can you tell us about how and why it started?
IAF was established formally in April 2014 but had been meeting informally since 2009. Its purpose is to give a worldwide voice to authors, in particular to writers and visual artists. It is a federation of organisations representing authors all over the world, and in particular their interests in copyright (or droit d’auteur in Civil Law countries) and access to fair contracts.
IAF started with a coming together of authors’ organisations in different countries – at that stage mainly Anglo-American and European – who met regularly, along with publishers and organisations which manage their rights collectively, through the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organisations (IFRRO). This group decided that their members needed an international platform that was independent from publishers (who already have their own well-established international organisation) where they could be represented at WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organisation) in Geneva, which is the UN special agency that regulates the international copyright framework. (http://www.wipo.int) WIPO also recognised this lack of representation from the very group for whom the rights it looks after were created to protect, and has been very supportive of the initiative. Another very important reason for establishing IAF was to work for authors to achieve fair contract terms with publishers, unfair contracts being a near universal problem for authors, which is only getting worse in these global, digital times as the publishing industry is increasingly driven by the corporate interests of shareholders and only authors who will produce bestsellers and write works for the ‘mainstream’ get a look in.
IAF is here not only to tackle the problems though, but to give more authors the means to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities for finding audiences and making a living from their work independently, which are available thanks to new technology and the internet. We do this through solidarity, information exchange, creating a worldwide network and encouraging authors to strengthen their collective representation in their own countries. We also have partnerships with relevant organisations. For example, we have recently entered into partnership with the International Public Lending Right (PLR) Network and are working to promote the benefits of PLR to authors worldwide, as PLR is a right which is currently only available to authors in certain countries. The same goes for the re-sale right for artists, the campaign for which we also support, and are hoping will eventually be enjoyed by artists in all countries.
PLR International – https://www.plrinternational.com
Artists Resale Right Campaign – http://resale-right.org
What challenges did you face along the way to establishing the IAF?
Creators are not by their nature necessarily given to operating within organisational frameworks, as the businesses which work with their rights are, so it is always going to be a challenge to create an organisation made up of authors. However, despite the individualistic nature of their work, working together to preserve the diversity so essential to their profession by advocating for their rights is a necessity most authors recognise and support.
Of course, the more immediate and frustrating challenge is of resources. Creators of course need to spend most of their time creating, and it is a notoriously difficult profession in which to make ends meet – so of course the same goes for an organisation representing them – we are really pleased with the progress we’ve made so far, and have been lucky to have secured the funds to get as far as we’ve got, but getting IAF onto a sustainable footing is an ongoing challenge and one that won’t go away, so we are always open to opportunities for ways to make our limited resources through partnerships and joint projects. And, of course, we have to channel some of those resources into fundraising!
What is the aim or philosophy of the IAF?
IAF is here to give authors a voice worldwide.
The vision is to ensure the world is an environment where authors can create, in which their work is appropriately acknowledged for the value it brings to society, and that authors have the opportunity to be fairly paid for all uses of their work so that they can continue doing it.
Our mission is to preserve individual, independent creative expression and enable authors to exercise their human rights in the moral and material interests in their work (the wording used in Article 27 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), to which a well-functioning copyright regime makes a fundamental contribution, and also ensures that everyone can enjoy the access to science and culture to which the counterpart of this right (Article 27(1) UDHR) grants them.
We’d also like to remedy the perception among ‘free culture’ advocates that copyright is somehow ‘anti-access’ and bring the creator back to the heart of the rights in their work and the discourse about those rights.
Which author organisations are in the IAF? How is membership determined? And how do you go about holding meetings when members are scattered across the world and in different time zones?
Currently we represent 56 author organisations – unions and societies of writers and artists – in different countries, who between them have over 600,000 individual author members. We have members in all regions – we are pleased to say after a meeting in Mexico last year our first members in Latin America joined – they are from Panama, Belize and Mexico. A full list of members is available on our website.
To become a member, the criteria is straightforward: an organisation must represent only or primarily authors. We aim to be as inclusive as possible. We are lucky that our current Chair (just re-elected for the next two years) is the wonderful poet, novelist and Executive Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada, John Degen.
We hold two physical meetings a year alongside the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organisations (IFRRO), which many of our members attend because they are also IFRRO members – so this cuts down on travel costs. Our Annual General Meeting is always attended by the majority of members by teleconference. This year it was in Sweden, which meant our members in Sweden and neighbouring countries could come. But to keep costs down we communicate with members mainly through regular newsletters and our website. We attend the Copyright Committee at WIPO in Geneva, which has two meetings a year, at one of which we usually hold a ‘side event’ on a particular topic relevant to authors, which are made up of presentations by authors from different countries describing their work and why their rights are so important.
We invite these authors to come to Geneva to meet IAF and the Government Delegates at WIPO who are members of the Committee – nearly 200 countries are represented on this Committee in total.
If we could get everyone together in one place at one time, that would be wonderful, but for now we have to see each other when we can, and make do with all the other ways to connect of which, luckily, there are plenty.
What are some of the issues affecting authors that the IAF is currently working on?
Authors’ rights are under attack on many levels worldwide. These can be seen in the issues arising at national and international levels.
Our members identified the priorities for IAF’s work in a survey we carried out in 2012 – 13. These are still relevant and determine the focus of our work.
- For IAF to lobby to ensure that any exceptions to copyright are balanced properly with authors’ rights and enable them to be paid fairly for all uses of their work. Certain governments, particularly in Africa and South America, have proposed worldwide treaties for copyright exceptions for libraries and in education, which are currently being discussed at WIPO. Whilst the motivation for such exceptions comes from the good intentions to improve standards of education and access to information, if these efforts do not include the means to compensate creators for providing the essential ‘content’ upon which they depend – which could be the effect of overly broad copyright exceptions – the quality, quantity, variety and locally authored nature of such resources are severely threatened. This can be seen from the unfortunate case of Canada, where the broadening of the exception for education in copyright law in 2012 led schools and universities to abandon their copyright licenses and has resulted in losses of tens of millions of dollars to Canadian authors and has diminished the Canadian educational publishing industry. This change, intended to benefit education, has in fact seen costs to students rise at the same time as it is eroding the quality of materials to which they have access.
IFRRO has produced this valuable case study on what’s happened in Canada, and in February this year, the Copyright Board in Canada made the devastating decision to severely cut the tariffs set on its educational copyright licenses.
Link – Canada Copyright Board decision:
IAF is working to ensure delegates at WIPO know of these dangers and consider the impact of any decisions they make on the creator, especially with regard to copyright exceptions. Last year we produced a booklet of testimonials from authors around the world focusing on this issue which is available on our website (http://internationalauthors.org/wp-content/uploads/Copyright-Works.pdf) along with the truth behind some popular ‘copyright myths’ http://internationalauthors.org/wp-content/uploads/copyright-myths-website-full-version-english.pdf by our very own John Degen. Both are available in English, French and Spanish.
Authors’ organisations in some countries are very active working with publishers to achieve fairer contract terms, but IAF’s principles are broad enough that they can be useful to any author who is confronted with the daunting prospect of signing a publishing contract that asks for their rights. When this happens, although authors are pleased to have a contract, they are often in the position of being unfamiliar with the legal language used and up against a team of powerful business people who have access to their own legal support, when the author has none. It is a joint venture in which the partners are not very equal. Ultimately, though, publishers are the authors’ means of getting their work to an audience and so they are often too willing to sign away more than they need to, or is fair to ask them for. Our fair contracts campaign aims to stop this exploitation and ask for fair contracts for authors, like those which are offered by the many responsible publishers out there.
About the campaign: http://internationalauthors.org/3105-2/
Another counter to this, self-publishing is being adopted by an increasingly significant number of authors and we are thrilled that the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) (http://allianceindependentauthors.org), became our first member working specifically in the interests of self-publishing authors last year.
We are about to publish a set of guidelines for authors on how to publish their works in formats which are accessible for people who are blind or have ‘print disabilities’, meaning they cannot read text in conventional formats, as part of our work on the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC). http://www.accessiblebooksconsortium.org
ABC is facilitated by WIPO and has arisen in the wake of the Marrakesh Treaty adopted at WIPO in 2013, which represents a global commitment to ending the ‘famine’ of books available to people with such disabilities. ABC is dedicated to making this ambition a reality. We are very excited about our guidelines. By making their books accessible, self-published authors can ensure their work reaches as wide an audience as possible, which is after all what most authors set out to do.
The concerns of IAF and our members are not limited to the challenges and opportunities of technology, however. Our activities also include supporting and strengthening the representation of authors in so-called ‘developing’ countries. For example, we are currently supporting our member in Sudan, the Sudanese Writers Union (SWU), whose license to operate was last year revoked by the Government. The Union is struggling to be reinstated but of course, IAF and its members still recognise the SWU as a legitimate and important representative of Sudanese authors.
How do you see the future for the IAF?
I would like IAF to continue to grow and to represent authors in all countries in order to ensure the preservation and on-going operation and evolution of their rich and diverse cultures. Using the expertise and experience of its well established and active member organisations, we would like to encourage authors in countries whose collective action is not so strong, to take an interest in, understand and advocate for their own rights. Of course, this all strengthens IAF’s voice at WIPO, but we would also like to begin working more closely with relevant intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNHCR) and UNESCO – so that they too, through IAF, have access to the perspective of real, working creators and are encouraged to give their rights appropriate weight in the decision-making processes that work toward the objectives which governments the world over are trying to achieve, especially at this time of such geo-political instability. That everybody can access the work of professional, independent, working creators – whose job is to communicate new ideas, foster tolerance and cross-cultural understanding and innovate with information – is such an important part of working towards a world with less of it.