About three years ago a letter dropped through my letterbox from the Authors' Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS). It said they were holding royalties for me and on becoming a member the payment would be transferred. My first reaction was that this was just another junk mail con trick. I am sure you've all received letters that start with "Congratulations - you've just won £50,000." It was only after speaking to a friend who had received royalties from ALCS that I dug the letter out of the recycling bin and made further inquiries.
ALCS is a non-profit making company that distributes payments to authors for the reproduction of their work. With over 80,000 members it is one of the largest writers' organisations in the world. In 2010 ALCS announced its incomes had increased by 10% in the previous year; distributing £23.1 million of payments to nearly 60,000 authors. In large part the revenue is generated by licenses given to photocopy an already published work but it also covers digitisation of printed texts and broadcasting and cable re-transmission. This year I received payments from sources as obscure as a Scandanavian anthropology department that photocopied a chapter I'd written for an edited book and the re-broadcast in Russia of a radio interview I'd done for the BBC.
The scale of the uncollected royalties held by ALCS is quite staggering. The Copyright Licensing Agency, the body that issues licenses to photocopy material, transfers the author's share automatically
to ALCS. The society is entrusted to seek out the authors and pass on the payments. At the moment ALCS holds £2 million in unpaid royalties and this is just the figure for writers that ALCS has tracked down but who haven't returned their registration forms.
Usually authors of books automatically keep the copyright for their work and publishers insist on exclusive publication rights. This means that while publishers can protect their interests, authors have ownership of their work and get paid for further reproduction. It is quite another matter when it comes to academic journals.
Publishers often insist that authors transfer copyright for their journal articles to the publisher. Under pressure to publish in a climate dominated by the Research Assessment Exercise and an increasingly competitive job market, academic writers - particularly young ones - simply publish at any cost, even if it means signing away the rights to their work. In truth, academic writers are often in too a weak position to bargain. We simply sacrifice the rights to our work as the price to be paid for making it onto the pages of a prestigious journal.
Taylor Francis, which publishes more than 700 journals, requests that authors transfer their rights because it is "standard practice in serial and journals publishing". Its rationale, posted on its website, is that publisher ownership of copyright gives "protection against infringement, libel and plagiarism". Additionally, it suggests that publisher control enables an efficient