Have you, as an author, ever considered donating a copy of your book to your local library? Did you know libraries (and other institutions) typically require donors of such materials to sign a gift contract? Would you even bother to read the contract or would you simply assume it was entirely innocent (it’s a library, for Pete’s sake), and sign on the dotted line?
Would you, as the author of a book, sign a contract that said this?
“I affirm that I am the owner of the materials being donated and hereby represent to (the recipient) irrevocably and for the use and purpose of (the recipient) all rights title and interest in the following materials…”
“I assign and convey irrevocably the legal title and all literary rights or copyright (to the recipient)….”
“I understand (the Library) may digitize this material for access via the World Wide Web or for other forms of electronic distribution.”
“Donor transfers all copyrights he/she holds in the materials to (the library).”
(The quotes above were taken from real U.S. library gift contracts.)
A friend recently donated her new book to a respected research institution. Instead of the standard “thank you” letter, the institution’s library sent her a Gift Agreement to sign. According to this agreement a writer loses not only his or her copyright but also the right to use unpublished materials and future use of the sources referred to in the book. The writer’s heirs lose the same rights.
Once this institution owns a book’s copyright, its administrators have the right to decide how it will be used, if at all, and who may access it. If the contents or part thereof are not seen as having value, the administrators reserve the right to destroy the book.
When challenged, the library argued that the agreement complied with the law but failed to explain which law, or how any law could or would require a writer to give up copyright of published or unpublished work before a simple “gift” donation was accepted. The failure to explain brings into question the institution’s motive. Motive is often wrapped up in money.
Most specialist writers reading this article are probably in danger of splitting their sides with laughter. Money is not something they see much of, but in select hands, in the right institutions, their books or unpublished manuscripts stand a good chance of bringing in consistent royalties.
Institutions which digitize their collections are able to turn their online resources into globally accessible subscription databases. Writers would be eligible for royalties for each download of their book or unpublished manuscript if they hadn’t been donated to these institutions. By forcing a writer to sign away copyright before a donation is accepted the institutions get to keep all income from any activity associated with the donated book.
Individual research institutions that make money out of their library and archival sources either compete for income with corporate owned databases or are affiliates of corporations that manage online databases. Affiliate institutions allow corporations to list their library and archival resources for a fee. Often, these corporations do not want to become trapped in royalty agreements so it is convenient for both parties that one or the other owns the copyright to resources in the libraries and archives. This creates market fluidity and promotes easy transactions.
A writer, who may very well have not read the entire contract, gives up all rights to their published and unpublished works, and corporations and institutions may be relying on ignorance and desperation to harvest the writers’ copyrights. Writers who sign agreements similar to the one received by my friend either do not understand what they are giving away, or they are so afraid that their books will not be read and appreciated that they are willing to sacrifice all their hard work and ideas.
Writers must realize they are no longer just free agents and creative gurus. They have become unwilling participants in a battle for intellectual property, their intellectual property. Digitization and global access to information has made it more profitable for the traditional protectors of knowledge, like libraries and archives, to undermine copyright rather than to uphold it.
Writers need to be proactive and protect their published and unpublished works.
1. Do not sign any document or agreement that requires a writer to give up all or part of his or her copyright immediately or in the future. This includes gift agreements.
2. Legally copyright all published and unpublished works and include the names of those who will inherit the copyright.
3. Include a copyright protection and extension clause in a Will so that no published or unpublished work can be signed over to an institution that refuses to pay royalties to heirs.
Heather Vallance is a Burlington Ontario based writer, information coach and historian. Heather has published articles and books on knowledge transfer and history since 1986, including Golden Nemesis: Manifest Destiny Between 1880 & 1900 and The Tumbleweed Wars through the BookLocker.