Long tails, short change

John Lanchester in the Guardian writes a lengthy article on the copyright issues surrounding books in the digital age. He concludes with an interesting proposal: let copyright endure for only a reasonably short period but guarantee the creator a percentage from further sales for a lengthier period – a lesser “royalty right”. Makes sense to me. In fact, many copyright owners of less popular works would do well by voluntarily switching to this regime even sooner where they figure that many others could exploit the work more effectively than they alone. You’d think that publishers of such works got the best for their buck currently through copyright licensing, but they don’t. Either the publisher has to make the market or the prospective licensee has to beg the deal. The wider market (the long tail) is not tapped. I’ve recently been declined by a publisher a licence to republish a value-added version of their work – a deal they happily enter into with other, bigger fish – on the grounds that my sales projections weren’t good enough. Good enough for what? Is not 10 or 20 or 30 per cent of something, paid direct to your bank account without you lifting a finger, worth more than 0 per cent of nothing? Clearly not; they had their costs to take into account. And what would they be? Why, the costs of negotiating, drawing up and administering the licence!