annapolis, md. image of author scott turow

annapolis, md. image of author scott turow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In an interesting and politically charged Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times, best selling author Scott Turow railed about a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that permits textbooks made and sold abroad, and resold online and in chain discount stores domestically as another nail in the coffin toward “The Slow Death of the American Author.”  Although he doesn’t cite the SCOTUS case by name, we know that Turow is referring to the nation’s highest court’s decision last month in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons holding that once copyrighted works are sold lawfully stateside or abroad, publishers and manufacturers lose the protection of U.S. copyright laws.

“We hold that the ‘first sale’ doctrine applies to copies of a copyrighted work lawfully made abroad,” wrote Associate Justice Stephen Breyer for the majority.

Turow posits that writers and authors constitutional protections which instruct Congress “to promote the progress of Science and the useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” are being trampled on.  He does not argue this to be the case for well known and highly regarded authors like himself but instead for “new and so-called midlist writers.”  These midlist writers do not have the bargaining power and leverage to negotiate in their contracts greater e-book royalties like their higher earning counterparts. Turow cites a fairly rigid rule that e-book authors only earn 25 percent of net receipts-about half of a traditional hardcover royalty.

You can click on the link in the first paragraph as to the many salient points Turow makes in the piece.  One important fact, however, that Turow does not make on behalf of his A-list and midlist brethren is the anecdotal situation going on regarding the reading of e-books in American families.  Relatives with one linked Amazon Kindle account can use the same user name and password to download books up to six times on various devices.   Downloads can occur on a Kindle, or on an iPhone or iPad with a Kindle application.  The same can occur with Nook users.  Presumably six different readers can read one downloaded work with the author only receiving royalties on the sale of one e-book.

One can argue that this is no different than a person reading a traditional hardcover purchased in a store that is then loaned to one friend, returned to the owner and loaned anew to a different reader.  This can be repeated many times over.  The distinction, however, is that an individual wanting to read the book has to wait for one reader to finish, actually return the book to its rightful owner and have the owner physically hand off the book to the aspiring reader.  E-book downloads, on the other hand, can occur almost simultaneously with copies going out to up to six individuals with linked accounts who can be across the country or even on another continent.

As Turow fights for the rights of the American author, he should also acknowledge that, to some degree, earning potential for writers was chipped away somewhat years ago when agreements regarding downloads on Kindles and Nooks were made in the first place.  E-book authors should benefit from the rapidness and accessibility of their copyrighted work when it can be shared with up to six individuals in a virtual minute.  This agreement with Kindle and Nook diminished the value of copyrights long before the Supreme Court ruled.

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