An update on the ‘Individual Creators’ project

Since the end of last year, the fieldwork for the ‘Individual Creators’ project has taken a life of its own. Unsurprisingly, organising visits, arranging and conducting interviews, making notes and writing up observations, have been the mainstay of the past year, but it has been extremely rewarding.

I have conducted over 100 semi-structured interviews with a range of writers, illustrators, composers, artists and performers. Some of the questions that have been central to the interviews are: what role (if any) does copyright play in individual practices? How do artists/writers/musicians etc. perspectives vary (if at all)? How has the dominance of the digital domain influenced the way they work and how has it affected (if at all) their view of copyright? How have they responded to the various challenges presented by the digital economy and what role (if any) does copyright play in the way they disseminate their work? Do they see copyright as something that is valuable, and as something that works for them? Is it lacking or perhaps failing to work for them in a way that would suit their needs? Or, is it even relevant to the continuance of their creative practice and the livelihood it affords them?

The interview phase of this project commenced last summer and the Edinburgh Festivals provided an excellent opportunity to speak to creative practitioners who were participating in them. For instance, I was able to interview a range of authors during the Edinburgh International Book festival (to name a few*: Christopher Brookmyre, Alistair Moffat, Denise Mina, John Keay, Pat Mills, Linda Strachan, Cat Clarke, Rob Davis, Karrie Fransman, Chris Haughton) and drew upon referrals from interviewees to follow up with more authors (Sara Sheridan, Lin Anderson, Catherine Czerkawska).

I have also attended some new media festivals (Ars Electronica, ISEA, Transmediale, FutureEverything) and spoken to a range of artists (Davide Quayola, Paolo Cirio, Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, Jacob Tonski, James Coupe, Golan Levin, Matthias Fritsch, Ellie Harrison, Joseph DeLappe, Jer Thorp, Memo Akten). These festival visits snowballed into more opportunities, such as visiting FACT in Liverpool (thanks to Mike Stubbs) for the opening of their exhibition Group Therapy, in March this year, where I interviewed a number of artists whose works were being exhibited (Hans Bernhard from Ubermorgen, Katriona Beales, Melanie Manchot and Erica Scourti). Apart from the interviews, I’ve also been conducting ethnographic research at some of these festivals, events, and other spaces that I’ve visited. I’ve also had very useful informal conversations with agents, gallery owners, curators, and representatives of arts organisations.

In particular, one fieldwork opportunity that proved invaluable to my research was being accepted as a visiting scholar at an Atlantic Center for the Arts (ACA) Master-Artist-in-Residence program (thanks to Jim Frost, Nancy Lowden Norman, and Nick Conroy). While at ACA, I interviewed the three ‘master artists’ in residence (Aram Bartholl, Josh Neufeld, and Jonty Harrison) as well as a number of the associate artists they had selected for the residency session. In addition to the interview opportunities, the visit allowed for wide ranging informal conversations about a number of issues: the prevalent norms associated with copying and attribution across different creative sectors, the meaning and value of rights for creators and how it changes over the course of a professional career, the role of branding, and the pressures and challenges faced by early career artists.

Many interviewees (Robert Powell, Rachel McCrum, Sara Woolley, Bonnie Ebner, Tom Smith, Clíodhna, Paper Doll Militia and others) have generously drawn on their personal networks and ties to introduce me to other artists and organisations or have been, very helpfully, drawing my attention to social media discussions amongst creators on copying and copyright. These introductions and suggestions have led to further interviews with creative practitioners based in the UK and the US: musicians (JG Thirlwell, Uri Caine, Marc Ribot), educators and composers of electro-acoustic music (Barry Schrader, Joseph Klein, Eric Honour), comics artists (Jamie Smart, Simon Fraser, Khary Randolph, Reilly Brown), and a range of visual artists (Kittie Jones, Tobias Revell, Merche Blasco, Kyle McDonald, Marius Watz, Jonathan Rosen, Evan Roth).

I will be conducting further interviews with a slightly expanded set of creative practitioners and will test and build upon some of the early findings that have emerged. There are also plans to conduct a separate study, at the beginning of next year, involving content analysis of online media and news, but more on that will follow in a separate post. Eventually, this blog (or a future, advanced version of it) will document the final findings of the project but I will also be sharing excerpts from a selection of interviews in the upcoming months.

*I’ve mentioned here the names of only a few of those interviewees who were happy to be identified. All interviewees, whether willing to be identified or choosing to remain anonymous, will be thanked suitably in full reports of the project.

From the Field and into the Maze

I have spent the first six months of 2015 travelling to London and conducting my fieldwork

London Calling...  I came, I interviewed, I left.  Image available by Karen Roe under CC BY 2.0

London Calling…
I came,
I interviewed,
I left.
Image available by Karen Roe under CC BY 2.0

which involved an exciting mixture of interviews and observations of the work of some creators’ organisations (COs). I conducted my first set of interviews with representatives from COs in the publishing industry: the Society of Authors, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. In April I then shifted my attention to the music industry and went on to interview representatives from PRS for Music, the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors, the PRS for Music Foundation (an independent charity committed to supporting new music talents) and the Musicians’ Union. I have conducted a total of 24 interviews amounting to nearly 30 hours of recorded conversation, which I am currently in the process of transcribing. I have also spent a couple of days with ALCS, PRS for Music and the Musicians’ Union which has enabled me to observe some of their day-to-day activities.

At the heart of my interviews were themes and questions aimed at understanding the work of creators’ organisations. I was interested in their role in applying the law -be it through the negotiation and application of collective bargaining agreements, through contract vetting, or through the establishment and maintenance of various licensing schemes as well as through copyright enforcement activities. I also wanted to understand their involvement in policy making and prompting change – through lobbying, campaigning and an active participation across various fora.

Beyond simply mapping the wide range of roles that these organisations assume and the services that they provide, I also explored how creators’ organisations have reacted to the way their industries have been and are continuously being transformed by the advancements in digital technologies. How has digital media challenged what creators’ organisations do? Has it made it easier or more difficult to represent creators’ interests? What have new business models meant for the balance of power in the music and publishing industries? How have these models changed contractual and industry practices, the value of copyright works and the way rights are being transacted?

Last but not least, it was my objective to not only explore the law in action but to also grasp and record the process behind the law in the making. To do this, I studied the various actors and their relationships to other industry bodies and to UK and EU policy makers. I took a closer look at the different fora in which they convene, the umbrella organisations through which they sometimes act and the considerations that underpin some of their actions.

@Edinburgh: not a field...but it will do for scenery Lovely image of Arthur's Seat available by David Monniaux under CC BY-SA 3.0

@Edinburgh: not a field…but it will do for scenery
Lovely image of Arthur’s Seat available by David Monniaux under CC BY-SA 3.0

Over the summer, I will complete the transcription of all my interview recordings with a contingency plan in place in case I need to follow-up with some interviewees to clarify any aspects of their accounts. At the same time, I am continuing to monitor relevant industry news updates, blogs, the organisations’ websites as well as social media for additional publicly available documents that may feed into, enrich or challenge my interview data.

Once I have completed these stages, I will finally leave the field behind and delve into the maze of coding and data analysis….

It is time... to take on the data! Image available by magnifulouschicken under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

It is time…
to take on the data!
Image available by magnifulouschicken under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Do check back on the Copyright and Creators Blog as I will be offering updates and more substantive glimpses into some of my thematic findings as my work progresses. I will also dedicate a post on the lessons learned from the field which will almost certainly have a sequel looking at the lessons learned from data analysis.

The Fall and Fall of Authors’ Earnings

On the 8th of July ALCS, the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, published the results of its latest survey on the earnings of authors. The reported figures were so staggering that they received wide media attention through publications on the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Bookseller, to name a few.

In brief, the main findings of the survey ‘What are words worth now?’ conducted by Queen Mary University show that only 11.5% of professional authors (a term used to refer to authors who dedicate the majority of their time to writing) make their living from writing alone. What is more, the typical annual income of professional writers stands at £11, 000. This figure is in itself disconcerting but it appears even bleaker when compared against the ALCS last piece of research on authors’ earnings from 2007, which reported annual median earnings of £12,330 for the financial year 2005. The ALCS  also criticises the low figure by highlighting a 2013 finding by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that single people in the UK need to earn at least £ 16,850 before tax to be able to achieve the minimum acceptable living standard.


Image available in the public domain by Wikimedia Commons

All these numbers so far relate to the earnings of professional authors, which, as the survey suggests, only make up a little over a tenth of all writers. For the remaining 88.5 % the trend is similar. The 2013 median income of ‘all writers’, i.e. full-time, as well as part-time and occasional writers, stands at £ 4,000. That is around £ 4,800 less than what was reported as the annual income of all writers in real terms in 2000 by the Society of Authors. The newly published findings are based on the data of 2,454 participants, hardly a negligible number. Hence, when the ALCS communicated the results of its latest survey on its website it introduced them with the following caption: ‘What are words worth now? Not much.’

It seems to me, however, that ‘Not much’ doesn’t really do reality justice. Books, along with other creative goods, must clearly be worth a lot. How else is one to interpret the 2014 statistics issued by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport according to which the creative industries now contribute £71.4 billion per year to the UK economy? The survey answers the question of the monetary value which creative works deliver to creators. Yet, further questions which need to be addressed include, where does the rest of the money go? What is the role of copyright in this context? And finally, who can do and who is doing something to change the present landscape for authors?

Image available under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 by Ian Britton

Various reasons have been suggested to explain the newly published findings. Nicola Solomon, the chief executive of the Society of Authors is quoted by the Bookseller as affirming that the author’s share of the profits from publishing and book retailing has gone down. She also identifies as a knock-on effect for authors Amazon’s increasing share of the book retail market. In light of the high discounts which the company offers it successfully drives prices of works down on a larger scale.

Other factors which have been brought up in connection with the survey include disproportionately low royalty rates for e-books, ineffective measures against illegal downloading as well as a general decrease in book sales and an ensuing decrease in publishers’ advances to authors.

Considering the role of copyright in this context, it is interesting and perhaps a little dubious that according to the ALCS survey over 69% of the respondents reported that their contracts allowed them to retain copyright most if not all of the time. One may have expected a different picture given the reported numbers on authors’ earnings. After all, in theory, copyright is the intellectual property right which empowers creators, such as authors, to control whether and how the work is used by others. It is the economic asset which authors can exploit to receive financial rewards for their works. If authors still own their copyright, then this should put them in a stronger position to negotiate the terms of use of their works.

Yet, if the majority of authors retain copyright in their works and still only earn as much as they do, where does the problem lie? Why is copyright not working the way that theory prescribes it should? The survey findings may be taken as an indicator that industry practice is focussed not on right transfers but on licensing. Although authors retain their copyright, they may be forced to negotiate unfavourable exclusive licenses, which in turn, may cover a wide range of uses. This means that authors lose the opportunity to negotiate different conditions with a number of marketers for various types of content exploitation. Furthermore, the question of copyright ownership is irrelevant in the context of piracy and illegal distribution of copies of works.

Perhaps in order to highlight a way of avoiding the conditions of market intermediaries, the ALCS survey also reports on the number of authors who have self-published their works (just over 25%). In principle, this model could enable authors to retain larger shares from the sale of copies of their works. However, while self-publishing as a business model seems to be on the rise, self-published works cannot compete with the marketing efforts and publicity that traditionally published works enjoy.

Overall, the survey sheds light on many important issues and problems. The question is how these challenges can be tackled, and by whom? During a mid-June event this year organised by the Westminster Media Forum on the next steps for copyright policy in the UK and EU Maria Martin-Prat, Head of the Copyright Unit of the European Commission, mentioned vaguely that the Commission had been studying the extent to which there are legislative mechanisms which can help authors and performers get fair remuneration for their contribution to creativity. It will be interesting to see if and how the new Commission picks up on this issue.


Authors may need a justice league of their own. Image available under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 by theyallfalldown

Still, when it comes to industry practices not all is, or should be, in the hands of the legislators. Various organisations, including ALCS and the Society of Authors can and do play a role in representing and promoting the interests of authors. How do they execute this role and what contribution do they make to improve the working conditions for authors? I will seek to shed light on these questions in the course of my research.

Periodic studies into authors’ earnings such as those commissioned by ALCS and the Society of Authors are already a valuable instrument which helps us identify industry trends and shortcomings as well as anticipate future challenges. In commenting on the latest survey, Owen Atkinson, Chief Executive of ALCS, noted that the decline in author incomes and in the number of authors who take up writing professionally may have serious implications for the success of the UK creative industries. This seems inconceivable given present statistics on the state of these industries. Yet, business models which continue to drive authors’ earnings down cannot possibly be sustainable against the increasing costs of living. It is questionable how long we can afford to take authors’ insufficiently valued labour for granted.