NWU ROLLs OUT 'PRC',
PIONEERING ONLINE ROYALTY SYSTEM
Publication Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) - the National Writers Union's new collective licensing organization - became a reality with the [ National Writers Union] National Executive Board's approval in August of an historic agreement between the NWU and the CARL Corporation. PRC (pronounced "perk") establishes a transaction-based writers' royalty system at CARL's UnCover, the world's largest database of magazine and journal articles.
PRC is a grassroots triumph for Operation Magazine Index, the Bay Area Local Journalism Campaign project that has gone national (American Writer, Winter 1995). And the agency's scope seems likely to widen in the wake of the purchase of CARL and UnCover by Knight-Ridder, Inc., the media conglomerate that owns, among other properties, the giant Dialog information service.
In late August, AW editor Steve Wolf talked with NWU assistant director Irv Muchnick about the PRC start-up.
Q. What do you consider the most significant aspects of the Union's move into collective licensing?
A. I can think of at least five. First and foremost, we're putting money into the pockets of writers - that's what the Union is all about. Second, a cyberspace royalty system holds the potential for correcting the power imbalance between writers and publishers. Third, PRC demonstrates the maturity of our union - we can consolidate gains and establish stewardship over concessions we wrest from a major company. Fourth, this victory will resonate throughout the Journalism Campaign, the grievance division, and our other good works. Fifth, PRC also bolsters the plaintiffs' position in the Tasini v. Times suit by establishing that the full-text database industry is a discrete market and something of value.
Q. What *won't* PRC do?
A. It won't substitute for a dynamic Journalism Campaign. Before the ink was dry on the CARL agreement, J-Campaign leaders like Russell Miller and Brett Harvey were already busy organizing our members and the writing community at large over The New York Times' decision to blacklist any freelancer who refused to sign away all rights. The Union's number-one priority, for folks who make their living writing for newspapers and magazines, is fighting these punitive all-rights contracts. Having articles available through UnCover won't mean a thing if the original print publisher owns the electronic rights. Of course, we expect the PRC option to leverage those rights for many writers and create the conditions for better deals. In the end, we don't care *how* writers get paid for extra uses of their works - by a publisher in a lump sum or by royalties from electronic distribution - just as long as they *do* get paid.
PRC should help the J-Campaign in one other way: It will reward superior rights management in general - and the use of the NWU Standard Journalism Contract in particular - because the articles PRC can clear most efficiently will be the ones with the best documented contracts.
Q. Suppose I'm a member who's published a bit in magazines here and there but isn't sure if they're important enough magazines or if PRC is right for me. What do you say?
A. We say PRC wants you, because collective licensing is a strategic imperative for all creators in new technologies. ASCAP [the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] wasn't a $400-million-a-year operation when it started in the nineteen-teens. So be patient, and don't plan to make a down payment on a summer home with UnCover royalties, but by all means do seize the chance to be part of an exciting chapter in the history of writers' rights. If all the hype about the "information superhighway" turns you off, think of it in terms of the "donkey trail" of rights and dignity.
I'd also say that the UnCover database draws from 17,000 titles - everything from Amateur Radio Today to Zimbabwe Veterinary Journal, with Harper's, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone in between. If you've written for a periodical stored anywhere on a shelf in a library supplying UnCover, we can track orders for it in cyberspace.
Q. What do you make of CARL's acquisition by Knight-Ridder?
A. CARL is a for-profit spinoff of the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries. As a business, it's innovative and entrepreneurial - No. 129 on Inc. magazine's list of America's fastest-growing firms. We expect that its alliance with a corporate giant will simply give it more muscle. Knight-Ridder has assured us that CARL CEO Ward Shaw and President Becky Lenzini, and UnCover General Manager Martha Whittaker, will continue to have a free hand. Besides the happy consequence of dealing with an even bigger industry player than we first thought, we're now in the interesting position of being able to say to Knight- Ridder, "One of your divisions practices conscientious copyright clearance, and the others practice . . . well, let's say something less than conscientious copyright clearance. Can we help you resolve this contradiction?" We can have a "dialogue with Dialog."
Q. And what about the Authors Registry [an agency being set up by the Authors Guild and the American Society of Journalists and Authors]? Some members have been asking whether we're competing with the registry or cooperating with it.
A. We're cooperating. We're working out an arrangement whereby all NWU members who would like to enroll in the Authors Registry can do so through us at no charge. And during the initial sign-up period, members of the Guild and ASJA and other writers' organizations will be able to enroll in PRC at the same fee as our own members'.
PRC and the registry have taken different approaches to skinning this e-rights cat. PRC has gone into the difficult business of rights clearance and made a deal with a major company in the database industry. The registry is compiling a master referral list of writers and their works, and plans to parlay *that* into deals. Both approaches have value. If you look at historical analogies in the music industry, you find that there are literally dozens of agencies involved in secondary rights at various levels; indeed, today there are no fewer than five *kinds* of collective licensing organizations.
So to repeat: We encourage our people to get in on the ground floor of both PRC and the Authors Registry. It's a waste of energy trying to figure out who's going to be ASCAP and who's going to be BMI. Nor do I think the creative community as a whole gives a damn about which writers' group's announcement undercut which other's, and who did what first, when, how and why. All I know is that here at the NWU we've been public and above-board about this project from day one.
Q. How will we know if PRC is a success?
A. This is a pilot project. Our hope is that UnCover, through its association with the NWU, can lower prices and compete with Information Access Company (IAC) and other mass-market counterparts in the full-text database industry. For now, UnCover is delivering via fax, a relatively expensive "transitional" technology. We're working hard to explain to librarians and other friends that the public has a stake in ensuring that the UnCover model of rights clearance prevails over the IAC model of text piracy.
To answer your question directly, PRC will be a success if a lot of writers get at least a little more money thanks to us. It'll be a success if we expand collective licensing from fax to online digital transmission and make more deals with UnCover itself and other companies. Finally, even if PRC doesn't run a direct surplus, it'll be successful if it brings new members to the NWU and currency for our cause.
This statement by the National Writers' Union reproduced with permission.
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