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SA’s Paperight fights for the right to copy books

Photocopying may be the easiest and biggest book-distribution mechanism in the world,” says Paperight founder Arthur Atwell, “And yet it’s absurdly difficult to photocopy a book legally.”

Paperight is the South African book startup which has won lots of plaudits over the last couple of years for its innovative print-on-demand platform that turns cornerstore copyshops into book manufacturers. Publishers who are terrified that the extraordinarily high price of importing books into South Africa means they will have no readers here can upload text electronically to Paperight, and buyers simply purchase a licence which they can turn into a physical copy at one of the shops listed here.

One of the unexpected problems that Attwell has run into, however, is what happens when a book purchasers wants to run off some extra copies of an article for a colleague or class? Traditional copyright agreements simply don’t make allowances for that beyond the legal definitions of fair dealing, and publishers don’t have mechanisms to accept money for the rights to make copies.

“I need to photocopy, and want to stay on the right side of the law, I should be able to take five minutes to pay for an instant licence,” Attwell explains.

Which is why people might underestimate the importance of a seemingly small update to Paperight’s terms and conditions released last week. By adding an optional clause for publishers to use Paperight to charge for photocopies to be made of any specific book, Attwell has potentially upended one of publishing longest running and most lucrative secrets.

You probably don’t realise this, but photocopiers are a publisher’s (and author’s) best friend. They’re worth a small fortune to writers, in ways the general public will almost certainly never understand. Effectively a photocopier is to publishing houses what a radio station is to music labels – arcane licensing deals between collecting agencies and libraries mean that royalties are paid on photocopied pieces without the listener/copier ever knowing.

The UK-based Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) collected almost R600m last year in fees largely made up of photocopy licences, which it distributes to its members twice a year – Disclosure: I’ve received substantial payments from the UK-based Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society in the past. In South Africa, the institution which collects these fees is DALRO.

It’s great for author’s, who earn a bit of oft needed cash through windfall payments, but not so great for cash starved public institutions like libraries, from whom the bulk of this money is gathered.

So what if you’re a public spirited author or publisher who wants to let South African schools copy your work as they need? There’s not a lot of options open to you at the moment. Even if you publish under a Creative Commons licence, the chances are a royalty will be collected on your behalf anyway.

Which is why Paperight’s new licence could be revolutionary – if people actually understand it, that is. And that’s the next mission Attwell has set himself on. Education.

“I’m sure we’ll be surprised by who uses it,” says Attwell, “But we’re going to be focusing on people who work at institutions known for photocopying: school teachers, college lecturers, librarians, church secretaries, HR managers, government officials. They and their institutions are legally exposed and need to stay clear of copyright infringement.”

It’s wonky – in the nerdy, civil service sense of the word – but it might just work. If Attwell can get publishers on board, that is.

[Image – CC by Michael Coghlan]

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