I make my living by licensing publishers to print and make available to the public my coyrighted material. In return, I get a percentage of the retail price of the book – eight or ten percent. It’s called a royalty payment. As a writer I am only able to pay my bills as a result of receiving royalty payments.
So, naturally, I am in favour of the principle of royalties.
But the royalties field is a very uneven one, and if someone chooses to steal my work and sell it without paying me my due, in truth there is very little I can do about it. And in this electronic age, pirates are plundering my assets left, right and centre.
Take Google, for example – those enlightened schoolboys who were going to change the world for the better. They just stole almost everything I ever wrote and made it available to anyone on the internet for nothing. Just copied it and put it up there.
And what can I do about it? Sweet FA.
Of course, they face a class action from any number of writers who have suffered the same fate. But that action is being led by a small, unrepresentative group who are advocating a settlement that will cost Google a lot of money, and if I’m lucky put 50 dollars in my pocket. Big deal!
Now here’s the irony.
As someone who believes in paying due royalties, I went in search of the owners of the lyrics of the Elvis Presley song, “Heartbreak Hotel”, because I wanted to include four lines from the song in my follow-up to “The Blackhouse”, which is called “The Lewis Man”.
After a lengthy process of tracking down the company which licenses reprint permission, I was told that those four lines were going to cost me a sum of money which would, eventually, run to thousands – to cover all the international and paperback editions of the book.
Crazy, isn’t it? Four lines from the lyrics of a song which are all over the internet. Four lines from a song written more than fifty years ago, whose writers are both dead (and don’t need my royalty payments to pay their bills). Four lines from a song which, had I paid for them, would promptly have been stolen by Google (and God knows who else) and made available to anyone who cared to download them.
So what did I do? Well, I cut the four lines, of course. It doesn’t make that much difference to the book, though of course it lost a little of its colour.
Madness or what?
I remember, as an employee of a publishing house, having to track down the copyright of every single quote, photograph, table, poem, drawing, etc. No honoring the original creator is downright rude. Is that all part of discourtesy that also makes people have intimate conversations on the phone in an elevator or on the street? I find it very sad that civilized behavior has become meaningless. Are words like honor, integrity, respect, and courtesy now passé?