The Authors' Licencing and Collecting Society (ALCS)  has an international role in ensuring that UK authors are paid for the use of their works. As such, it is represented in various international groups, which means a healthy globe-trotting schedule for its recently appointed new Secretary General, Chris Zielinski. On the morning that we met in his office overlooking Oxford Street in London, he was in early, trying to catch up with mail which has accumulated during his most recent trip, to the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) conference in Seville. "Even though we look after the interests of British authors, almost everything seems to have an international dimension these days," he says.
So is authors' rights administration a glamorous are a of activity? Not glamorous, says Zielinski, but certainly growing. "When ALCS began, back in 1977, the work of the society was carried out by two people and a typewriter. We now have a staff of 24, and are still expanding."
The authors Brigid Brophy and Maureen Duffy were instrumental in setting up the Society, which seeks to ensure that authors are properly remunerated for the use of their works beyond their contract with publishers. At that time, the most prominent issue was the public lending right, which later became a statutory provision now administered by a separate government-appointed organisation. The licensing of photocopying was the next hurdle. To handle this, the Society set up the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) in 1983, in conjunction with the Publishers' Licensing Society (PLS). CLA licence fees are paid to ALCS and PLS on a 50-50 share-out for books. Until recently, the publishers took the full 100% for periodicals, but this is likely to change under the new agreement governing the operation of the CLA.
Publishers are generally considered to be the beneficiaries of copyright licensing fees. With ALCS, whose profile is growing each year along with its turnover (some 10 million pounds last year), also in the business of collecting fees from users, librarians might worry that the collective power of rights-holders could eventually break the bank. Zielinski is keen to stress that the Society exists for more than the simple purpose of grabbing money to disburse to authors. "We are often lumped together with publishers, because we act for rights-holders. But authors are not normally looking for huge profits in the same way as publishers. You might think of us as Woolworths, and the publishers as Harrods. We want a larger audience, while publishers want a larger return on investment. The two are not necessarily the same." In fact, the presence of authors could serve to drive the cost of rights down, not up.
The subject of intellectual property rights tends to make the eyes of most information professionals glaze over, yet in the age of access an understanding of intellectual property rights could allow libraries to play their part in keeping costs down. It is important first to understand that ALCS has generally not dealt with primary rights, which are covered by an author's publishing contract. Its concern is secondary rights, which allow authors to be paid, for example, when their texts are photocopied, or repackaged into CD-ROMs, or mounted on a commercial Web service.
The new challenge lies in digital rights, and this is where the Society's 5,000 academic authors, and the large group of journalists who have recently joined, come into the picture. "The digital age is our new frontier" states Zielinski. The Society is leading the European Commission-funded Imprimatur  project, which is developing electronic copyright management systems, and it has been in discussion with JISC over the types of assistance which it may be able to render to eLib projects. "It seems clear that, for the on-demand publishing and electronic reserve projects, the task of securing rights can consume huge amounts of project budgets. JISC has asked us to organise a working party to review rights issues arising from digitisation."
Libraries need to become familiar with the work of ALCS, and the advantages it can offer. "Around fifty per cent of the texts included in course-packs are out of print. Rights for out of print works usually revert to authors, and we can handle these rights clearances. Fees can be negotiated with authors, often at very reasonable rates. Libraries only need to contact us."
ALCS is a not-for-profit organisation, and is not a trade union. Zielinksi lays stress on the importance of ethics in information activities, and states that his organisation offers a way out of the impasse for librarians "who want to digitise everything compulsorily", and publishers who are seeking to hang on to all rights. In general, ALCS urges authors to retain their secondary rights, particularly electronic rights, as well as photocopy rights to articles, even those published in scholarly journals. This is advice which academic librarians would do well to pass on to their academic colleagues, since it should help to restrain the costs of electronic information. Meanwhile, Zielinski has defended the notion of the academic author as a 'trade' author, in recent e-mail discussions with Stevan Harnad of Southampton University. "Academic authors have a right to income from the sale of their secondary rights" he insists. "The popularity of the Los Alamos pre-print physics archive shows that there is a market for electronic scholarly articles, and that ought to yield payments for authors, once projects like Imprimatur have come up with successful business models."
But Zielinksi is keen to safeguard the rights of authors in all areas. "In higher education, the traditional 'publish or perish' reward system is losing its grip owing to changes in contracts and the decline of tenure" he says. Academic authors are no longer as distinctive a group as they were, and increasingly now occupy the rights territories which ALCS guards so successfully.