Copyright Law

Turow: SCOTUS decision and digital advances devalue copyrights, putting literary discourse at risk


Legal-thriller author Scott Turow is blasting last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision against a publisher fighting the resale of books purchased cheaply overseas.

The ruling will allow a surge of cheap imports, Turow writes in an op-ed for the New York Times, and the authors won’t get royalties for the sales in a secondary market. The decision, he says, is part of a larger problem: “The global electronic marketplace is rapidly depleting authors’ income streams.”

According to Turow, the Constitution’s protection for copyrights is based on the idea that a diverse literary culture is essential to democracy. “That culture is now at risk,” Turow says. “The value of copyrights is being quickly depreciated, a crisis that hits hardest not best-selling authors like me, who have benefited from most of the recent changes in bookselling, but new and so-called midlist writers. “

Turow provides some examples:

• Publishers are saving through the new market for ebooks, but they aren’t sharing the savings with authors. According to Turow, the major publishers limit ebook royalties to 25 percent of net receipts, about half of the usual royalty for hardcover books.

• Many pirate websites are giving away ebooks. They can be found on an Internet search, thanks to a 1998 copyright provision that removes legal consequences for the search engines.

• Google is digitalizing millions of copyrighted books, claiming the right to do so through fair use. Google points out it shows only a snippet of the copyrighted book through an Internet search, but it doesn’t share any revenue from its online ads.

• Public libraries are lending ebooks to anyone with a library card and online access, making a trip to the library unnecessary.

• Amazon has received a patent to resell ebooks. (The New York Times published a story last month.) “Such a scheme will likely be ruled illegal,” Turow writes. “But if it is not, sales of new ebooks will nose-dive, because an ebook, unlike a paper book, suffers no wear with each reading. Why would anyone ever buy a new book again?”

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