If you haven’t heard about it yet, most likely you will. Today Congress held a hearing on a full Senate/House version of the bill known as the “Stop Online Piracy Act.” It seeks to deal with a real threat, the piracy of copyrighted works often through Internet sites where users share their creative work, or not so creative as the case may be. The grandaddy of them being YouTube. The New York Times has an article up on it that lays out the vast overreaching of this bill and how it will end up hurting mostly innocent users of the Internet, businesses, lost jobs, and lost future jobs due to the high cost of compliance by putting the burden on website owners to not allow copyrighted work on their sites or face stiff penalties. Currently, if someone complains about a copyrighted work being on a site, they file a notice to the hosting site, and the hosting site has a set number of days to remove it without any further consequences.
The article and others have detailed the impact this law will have in a very negative way of bringing about censorship and the suppression of creative works in general. But I wanted to focus on what this will mean for indie authors and presses. After all, don’t indie authors and presses want to stop the piracy of their works? Isn’t making it more difficult for sites to host such things and get away with it a windfall for the authors? On the surface, one would think so, until one digs a little deeper.
The problem is that pirates will be able to get around this, and people will find ways to distribute them illegally. Only those who are trying to play by the rules will be hurt, and that includes authors who self-publish and small presses. How?
Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, probably the biggest host of indie-published works on the Internet, and other companies like Smashwords and Barnes and Noble’s PubIt who provide indie-published authors and small presses a way to get their work out there without having to go through the “gatekeepers” of traditional publishing houses, will, if this bill becomes law by the end of this year, be forced to evaluate all submitted works before allowing them to go on sale in order to avoid the liability of the government blocking their access to US book buyers and whatever fines that may incur.
Here’s the practical results of what this law will do because of this necessity.
Indie-publishing sites like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords will now become enforcement arms of the government. They will out of necessity become censors. This presents a problem, in that any mistakes on their part could be costly. What that will mean is that some poor employee evaluating each submission before sending to the site to go on sale or out the reject door, with hundreds to look at, isn’t going to take the time to evaluate your story properly. Like an editor, they will be looking for a reason to reject, and anything that doesn’t pass the smell test will tend to get rejected without further research. Any doubt about whether your story violates copyright law will be cause for immediate rejection whether it actually does or not. Because they know if one mistake gets through and noticed by any watchdogs, their whole site could be shut down. With that hanging over their head, they aren’t going to take any chances. They won’t have time to research, to rub their chin and do a Google search. A lot of works which don’t violate the copyright law will not be allowed to be published, punishing innocent authors for the transgressions of a small percentage of them.
Indie-publishing sites will be forced to hire new employees simply to comply with this law, simply to shift through everyone’s submission to either give them the stamp of approval or not. “Isn’t that a good thing, more jobs and working people?” I’m afraid the few that get hired to do that will not offset the many lost jobs. Why? Because hiring those employees and complying with the act is going to cost those companies some money. That will mean one or two things. Either those companies will charge more for their product/services and cut jobs in other areas to have the money to pay for review of all submissions and paperwork they will be required to file, and liability insurance in the event they miss something, and any resulting fines and cost if they are charged, or they will decide the cost simply isn’t worth the potential benefits and cancel the programs.
Indie authors and presses are going to make less money. One way the sites may pay for the additional cost is to reduce greatly the percentage they pay authors and small presses. We’ll likely say bye bye to the 70% cut Amazon gives us. We may even be lucky to keep the 35%. Or worse case, we’ll have no place to put up our work, and we’ll be back to looking only to the traditional publishers for our outlets, because these same dynamics will affect POD (Print On Demand) which small presses rely heavily on for publishing their works. The living some indie authors are making will evaporate and/or be greatly reduced.
Forget seeing your book get up for sale within two days. It will then go into a queue waiting for the few overworked employees they do hire to get to them. Expect it to take more than a month or more before you see that story go up. Depending on how many employees the particular company feels they can afford, don’t be surprised if it takes half a year or more. That all represents time your book could be making money instead of sitting on a hard drive, waiting for approval.
You’ll have less and less options of where to publish. Some companies will probably keep going, with reduced rates, increased processing time, and you cross your fingers and hope nothing in your book “looks” like a copyright violation, causing it to get rejected. But some companies will give up, and shut down, or remove that service from their mix. Companies like Apple will reevaluate their contracts with Smashwords if this bill passes, and access to those channels could easily disappear. Expect to have fewer outlets to sell your work.
Some of those predictions could be off the mark. I pray we don’t have to find out whether I’m right or not, because based on the bill and these logical consequences of those actions, I fear I’ll be much more right than wrong. And the only way to prevent it at this point is for enough people to contact their congressmen and women and tell them to vote against it.
I’m sure the traditional publishing companies are for this bill, because it will end up shifting power back in their direction that has been flowing to indie authors and small presses over the past several years. We need to let our representatives know that the people who put them in office are watching, and if they don’t vote as we expect, they cannot count on our vote. If they get enough of those notes, they will take note. We might not have a lot of money, but votes count for more than money. Enough of them and they will have a change of heart.
Bottom line: this bill is bad for the economy, bad for anyone who wishes to start up a business whether that is a social site or a creative work like writing a book. The government can surely find ways to help prevent piracy without restricting the freedoms of its citizens and making it harder to make money in this recessive economy. Write your representatives and let them know what you think and how you intend to vote come when they are up for election again.