The Contract Doctor Is In, Session Two

The Contract Doctor Is In, Session Two

by Bill Minor
copyright © 2001 Bill Minor

Contract Doc: One · Two · Three · Four

At the close of the first "Contract Doctor" column, I promised to provide "a few interesting if not exactly heartening examples of the activities of that new breed of pirates and poachers who've sprung up on the current publishing scene," but I realize that, in serious journalism, disheartening examples don't exactly qualify as the best attention grabbers or "lead." So let me start with some "facts" instead -- in the manner of Jack Webb: his Dragnet no-nonsense Joe Friday persona ("Just want to get the facts, Ma'am") rather than his role in the film Pete Kelly's Blues, in which Peggy Lee sang "Is That All There Is?" Then I'll move on to disheartening examples that may persuade you that it's wise to register your work.

Once that work had been set in "tangible form," and a contract signed or agreement arranged for the work to be published, how can you protect yourself against any possible future copyright infringement? Answer: You send three items to the Copyright Office ( (1) the Registration Form (available through them), (2) a "deposit" (not money, just yet) which is a single copy of the work if it has not yet been published and two if it has; and (3) send money (now) to the tune of a $30 registration fee. Periodical or newspaper work can be registered "in a batch," on a single form and for a single fee, as long as the pieces were published -- or written -- within the same 12-month period. Why bother with all this? You needn't, unless you feel there's some risk of piracy taking place. And that's where the disheartening examples come in. As I suggested first time out, with the growth of electronic publishing piracy has itself grown rampant. Some people feel it's "epidemic."

I learned, through the National Writers Union, of an organization called Uncover that was compelled to cease its open seas adventures (piracy) by way of a "landmark" 7.5 million dollar settlement. Writers could check to see if previously published work was (a) offered on Uncover but "covered" ("copyright holder does not allow" a download) or (b) not protected. I found, to my surprise, that seven articles of mine previously printed in Coda, Jazz Forum and the Massachusetts Review were there, but "visitors" were not allowed to appropriate them; whereas, less fortunately, a JJA colleague discovered 38 (!) of his that were not protected: his articles being offered at $13 a pop (download).

Neither of us would have known our stuff was even there (permission and copyright be damned)! Another organization caught in similar practices has recently arranged for writers to receive 30 percent of fees paid by its customers. I checked and, while I didn't find any articles of mine offered, I did find my two jazz books (available at special "Citizens Club Price," whoever they are!), and I am now attempting to discover whether these are warehouse copies of the books or "fresh" e-versions. One of my publishers had never even heard of this organization and didn't know the answer to this last puzzle himself! Or, the saddest case: a NWU client of mine, who had written a religious tract at the tender age of 17, is now working as a computer salesperson. In order to demonstrate the wonders of going online to a customer, she put her own name in a search engine and -- lo and behold -- up came a book! Her book (her tract), but not hers, for a publisher had seized it and published it ten years ago-and simply not bothered to let her know about this favor.

Aside from the safety valve of registering your work, there are ways to monitor it (the date of registration is no real security against infringement -- these people, this new breed of third-party vendors, are unscrupulous -- but a "fact" that stands in your favor should you have to go to court for a settlement. My client had not registered her "tract," and the publisher even had the nerve, after offering her book for sale for ten years, of now of fering her a contract!) -- and these means of monitoring are available to individual writers.

A recent article on called "Preventing Content from Being Napsterized" lists four separate means of DRM ("digital rights management"): Reprints and Permissions, Encrypted Solutions, Content Distribution, and Copyright Enforcement through such ingenious means as checking "watermarks." The most significant, for individuals, is probably the first: locating a means (Copyright Clearance Center and iCopyright are two mentioned, and you can check their services out) to see if your work is appearing where, and when, it shouldn't. One of my favorites is Digital Integrity Search (, where you "paste" some of your published (and copyrighted) text in a box provided and if "any fragment of that document longer than about one line of text" has been appropriated unbeknownst to you, a list of Web pages will appear. The swiftness with which this information comes up scared the hell out of me-but that's the Brave New World we live in. Fortunately, this time out, I didn't discover that any of my articles had been, illegally, seized.

Enough, for now (I hope), on copyrights. Unless members have specific questions -- please let me know.

Thanks to the member who wrote saying we're off to a "great start" dealing with the, yes, "confusing and troubling situation that affects us all equally"-contract terms (and rates in general). I've responded to his suggestion (that JJA members reveal "financial details" in the hope of greater equity -- all the connotations of that word -- and "a higher standard") in the Comment or dialogue box provided with this column (BBS). And any further responses are welcome. Another major issue or situation that has been suggested, and one that affects us all, is the problem of unwarranted "editing." I'd be willing to bet there are few JJA members who haven't discovered, at one time or another, that their work -- after "editing" -- appeared in print, or online, in a form that didn't quite resemble the original-in a form that was nearly unrecognizable in fact (I am exaggerating for effect, but not by much!). Because of the prevalence of this practice, I'd like to take a look at the situation (and what can be done about it-before it occurs) in the next column.

Perhaps a convenient format would be to introduce a new issue at the close of each column, if for no other reason than to keep people reading, through suspense! As in those serials I used to watch in Saturday afternoon theaters outside of Detroit, as a kid: something along the lines of The Perils of Pauline (or The Perils of Paul), rope-bound on the railroad tracks, soon to be ground to a pulp by the Midnight Special, their bodies discovered at dawn, then returned home to family or sweethearts in 37 separate Mason jars (will they find the teeth? Or will Pauline, or Paul, escape, only to be threatened with extinction again next week, same time, same theater?). Stay tuned and find out! See you then, when the Contract Doc is "in" again.

William Minor is an author, story-teller, journalist, educator, drummer, listener, and JJA member-in-good-standing; all opinions in his columns are his responsibility, not necessarily reflecting the editorial staff of Jazzhouse.

Discussion on this article may be carried out on our BBS. If you want to send the doctor a totally anonymous message, use the form here.