I created a Storify a few months back summarizing the launch of the Authors Alliance in May. Unfortunately, I couldn’t embed it into a WordPress hosted site, so it languished in my drafts folder. Now that I have the time, here’s a makeshift “Storify”/recap of the event:
The Authors Alliance launched on Wednesday, May 21. Walking in, it was unclear exactly what the organization was. But there were certain names attached that hinted at the goals. The Board of Directors included UC Berkeley professors known for their copyright reform work, and the Board of Advisors boasted such names and Michael Eisen, Lawrence Lessig and Harold Varmus, all big names in the open knowledge world.
The launch took place at the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive essentially the digital Library of Alexandria, with hundreds of books, archives, videos, you name it stored and free to use. It was founded by Brewster Kahle, who made his fortune selling a company to Amazon and is spending it all in ways that undermine it. The building itself is in a former Christian Science church in the Richmond District and is basically magical.
Fun fact: Everyone who works at the Internet Archive is immortalized as a “Terracotta Archivist.” It is both as cool and creepy as it sounds.
All sorts of interesting folks were there.
Brewster Kahle started the evening off with some remarks.
(Sidebar: I totally embarrassed myself when I talked to him during the pre-show mingling. I mentioned I had been to their annual celebration the previous October, and he asked me what my favorite part was. I said the archived video games because those were awesome. And he said, what about Daniel Ellsberg? Yup, I had totally forgotten about the talk from one of the most important free speech advocates in the country. Go bears.)
Two Stories and a Graph
The first speaker was Molly Van Houweling, a UC Berkeley law professor who was a founding member of Creative Commons. (She currently serves on their Board of Directors.)
Molly chose to explain the Authors Alliance with two stories…
And a graph:
According to this graph, most books under copyright often disappear in the years after publishing. Which leads to the question…
And that’s where the Authors Alliance came in:
Are you my mummy?: Orphan Works
The next speaker was Pamela Samuelson, another co-Director and UC Berkeley Law professor. Her focus for the evening was Orphan Works: materials under copyright where the rightsholder is either uncontactable or indeterminate.
Pamela discussed two particular orphan works. One was a photograph of a SNCC activist, which the SNCC archivists wanted to use but was most likely under copyright. The other was a video of Japanese Americans returning from internment. The video was under copyright, but the rightsholder was unknown. Both works held historical significance, but copyright made it difficult to use them.
She did, however, warn that not all works would be considered orphan works, but it is an important agenda item.
Pamela rounded out her talk with other potential agenda items, such as attribution and simplifying copyright. She also called for collaboration with other groups.
Geoffrey Nunberg, of the UC Berkeley School of Information, led a Q&A with Brewster, Molly and Pamela. It was quite extensive, so I’m going to be laying it out Buzzfeed style here. (Sadly, it’s only embedded Tweets, not GIFs.)
A place for readers:
Geoff brought up readers, and asked if they had a role in the authors alliance.
There was discussion over the role of librarians:
They discussed change in copyright law in 1976:
And Brewster Kahle provided this rockstar, Tweetable moment:
With all this talk of copyright law, someone asked what other issues the Authors Alliance would address:
In reference to earlier, there was talk about attribution:
And of course, the inevitable Authors Alliance vs. the Authors Guild
The Authors Guild is a professional organization for published authors. (Judy Blume is among the vice presidents of the Board of Directors.) They are involved in lawsuits against Google and HathiTrust.
If any of you earn a living as a writer, or hope to, I strongly urge you not to join the Authors Alliance. If you think authors should be the ones to decide what is done with their books, then I strongly urge you not to join.
However, if you are an academic, or scorn the idea of making a living from writing as a quest for “fame and fortune,” the Authors Alliance may be the organization for you.
So of course someone asked about it, but the panel didn’t linger on it for too long.
Two members of the advisory board got into a discussion about the nuances of authorship
And on that note, the panel was closed.
Everyone left the event super amped up on the idea of open knowledge. There was a palpable level of excitement in the room and a charged energy in the car as we journeyed back to the East Bay.
Watch the full presentation:
Postscript: Since the launch, they’ve maintained a fairly active Twitter feed as well as an official blog. Pamela, for example, has blogged about the orphan works and Molly talked about Sherlock Holmes coming into the public domain. Authors Alliance has also filed an amicus brief for Authors Guild v. Google supporting Google’s Fair Use defense.