Rights Management and Preservation: What Authors Can do

There’s been lots of good (and/or harrowing) stuff going around about the perils of preservation on the web. Jill Lepore’s examination of the Internet Archive in the New Yorker is at the top of the pile, followed by Andy Baio’s “Never Trust a Corporation to do a Library’s Job,” but these only capture the full story when complemented by freelance writer Carter Maness’ observation that his portfolio has all but evaporated from the web as sites have shuttered, restructured, or otherwise ditched their archives. Carter writes:

We assume everything we publish online will be preserved. But websites that pay for writing are businesses. They get sold, forgotten and broken. Eventually, someone flips the switch and pulls it all down. Hosting charges are eliminated, and domain names slip quietly back into the pool. What’s left behind once the cache clears?

This lesson isn’t a new one. As I’ve noted before, film studios’ purposeful destruction of archives is partly responsible for the fact that that the vast majority of American silent film has been deemed “completely lost.” Never trust a corporation to do a library’s job, indeed.

But even the most risk-tolerant and passionate librarians and archivists aren’t positioned to save everything before it reaches the great recycle bin in the cloud, or the more literal one at the book pulping plant. With a little bit of copyright savvy, authors themselves can have a vital role in seeing that their works don’t simply disappear.

Of course, authors are not always the most committed archivists. There is a long and storied history of creators disavowing or simply giving up on their works. Kafka famously wanted all his unpublished writings (that is, most of his writings) burned, and he’s hardly alone. And with today’s announcement of the publication of a long-buried Harper Lee novel, there’s already speculation that it’s being published against her will. Now, this is all eminently understandable—who would want to live in the shadow of work they don’t themselves appreciate or believe in?

But it seems far more common that authors are in fact the best advocates for what they’ve made, and are the most committed to seeing that their work remains available. And, fortunately, these authors are often solidly positioned to ensure that things don’t disappear. In general, there are three ways forward:

  1. Keeping rights in the first place. Not every publisher needs copyright or an exclusive license in order to make something available. Often, and especially for shorter works on the internet, an embargo period during which the publisher has exclusivity does just as well. Then, when the publisher disappears, the author can be sure the work is mirrored elsewhere.
  2. Reverting rights. For book-length written works, rights reversion clauses are standard. Wording and substance can change, but the general notion is that these require that publishers return rights to books they’re no longer printing or—in the age of the ebook—selling. Wearing my other hat as executive director of Authors Alliance, I should note that AA has a comprehensive guide to rights reversion as a tool for making a work more available coming out pretty shortly.
  3. Terminating transfers. So long as a work isn’t “made for hire,” authors can get their rights back 35 years after signing them away. Actually making this happen is highly technical and, frankly, cost prohibitive for most short works. There are a number of good guides that go through some of the details of this process, including those made by the Future of Music Coalition and the Authors Guild.

With rights in hand, works can be posted in a repository under a public license, submitted to archiving efforts like the internet archive, republished by another outlet, or compiled and released in a new form. And, even where none of the above apply, there’s a strong argument that fair use would allow authors to resurrect at least some unavailable works, in much the same way that many believe fair use can help libraries and archives counteract the orphan works problem (note: this is not legal advice!).

Admittedly, keeping track of rights isn’t easy, particularly not for people who are publishing literally thousands of pieces. But negotiating contracts and then saving them can pay dividends later on when rights issues can prove impportant