September 1

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AI and Copyright Plus Publishing News with Jane Friedman

By Boni Wagner-Stafford

September 1, 2023

#AI, #books

If you like to keep up with publishing news, you’ll know there’s been plenty of upheaval in recent years. Corporate mergers, well-established hybrid publishers suddenly closing, the impact of AI on copyright, and more. You’re likely not the only one wondering: “What is going on in publishing? And what does the future hold?”

One person who has a better idea about what’s going on than most is the editor of The Hot Sheet, a publishing industry newsletter, and she’s also Digital Book World’s Publishing Commentator of the Year for 2023. We recently spoke with Jane Friedman on The Ingenium Books Podcast, and she shared her insights into three burning issues in the publishing world: Scribe Media, changes at Canadian book retailer Indigo, and the impact of AI.

Q. What’s the deal with Scribe Media?

A. In 2014, Tucker Max and Zach Obront founded Book in a Box, which was later renamed Scribe Media. The company soon became a go-to for people who wanted to publish books but didn’t really have the time to learn how to do it themselves: providing writing, coaching, publishing and marketing services. Scribe Media at one stage employed 133 people to help aspiring authors through the entire book-publishing journey, based on the hybrid publishing model.

Then, in late May 2023, the company abruptly laid off most of its employees and started selling off its assets, including its author contracts. By early June, its CEO had resigned. Reportedly, a buyer was found, but the lack of communication from Scribe has left employees and customers in the dark about their future.

While the implosion of Scribe Media is unlikely to affect the hybrid publishers in general, it might change how authors do business with these companies. For example, they might be less willing to pay the full amount upfront, and instead pay in stages. They may also want to revise their contracts to have ways to back out and protect their money when the company doesn’t deliver the services it’s promised.

Q. What about what’s happening at Canadian book retailer Indigo and other book retail chains?

A. Indigo – officially known as Indigo Books & Music Inc – is Canada’s largest book retailer, founded in 1997 by Heather Reisman.

In February 2023, the company fell victim to a ransomware attack which meant that for several days, its stores couldn’t process credit or debit card transactions and for almost two months, online sales weren’t available either. Employee data had been compromised and the attack, along with an already existing decline in revenue compared to the previous year, meant a loss of about $50 million in the financial year up to April 1.

Reisman announced her retirement in June of ’23, after four of the ten board members stepped down citing a loss of confidence in the company’s leadership.  

Book retail chains in general haven’t been faring too well in recent years, with Barnes & Noble in the United States and Waterstones in the United Kingdom both having been bought by a private equity firm. In the case of Indigo, the move to selling more than just books and becoming a kind of lifestyle store instead has also had a negative effect on revenue.

Q. What does a future with AI look like in publishing?

A. It seems that AI is here to stay, whether we like it or not. While it’s still in the early stages, it has already raised some big questions in terms of copyright. Let’s look at each of these in a little more depth.

  1. Is there copyright infringement in the way that AI scrapes data? Many writers are upset by the idea that AI is scraping data from their work and using it without their permission. However, trying to withhold your data is probably not going to make much difference to anybody, yourself included.
    • You can compare it to how Google undertook a massive project to scan as many books as possible, with the participation of libraries. There was a lawsuit to try and stop it but the courts found that the way Google was doing it was fair use. When you search for a line from a book, for instance, Google won’t show you the entire book but instead, you get to see a snippet. This doesn’t take away from the value of the book and the author isn’t losing revenue.
    • AI ingests language and uses it in a similarly transformative way.
  2. Are the outputs from AI infringing on copyright? Generally, AI’s output in terms of language comes from many different sources and the chances of copyright infringement are slim. However, things may be more problematic when it comes to images such as illustrations. So, there may need to be tighter control over the technology to prevent it from possibly infringing on copyright.
    • Another possible problem may be when there are only two or three sources relating to your prompt and so when AI scrapes data from these sources, there’s a greater possibility of producing text that is far too similar to the source material.
    • Greater transparency into how exactly AI does what it does can help to alleviate fears and look for solutions to possible copyright issues. 
  3. Can you get copyright protection if you use AI to create something? The way AI will affect copyright law might be similar to what happened with the advent of cameras and photography. At the time, painters and other artists thought that these newfangled machines were devaluing humans and their creations and that there shouldn’t be copyright protection for photographs. Nowadays, of course, photographs are protected by copyright too. After all, to take a good picture, you need to consider factors like framing and lighting rather than simply letting the camera do all the work.
    • In February 2023, the United States Copyright Office revoked copyright for the images author Kris Kashtanova used in her graphic novel Zarya of the Dawn. This was because she used an AI tool to create these images, spending hundreds of hours editing and refining the results until she got exactly the images she wanted. The Copyright Office, however, only saw that the images were produced by a machine and as such, they couldn’t be protected by copyright. They did grant copyright to the book as a whole, though. By May of 2023, the Copyright Office had issued new guidelines that are already taking a more relaxed stance about AI-generated material and likened some of its uses to tools like Photoshop. The important part is how much creative control the human has had in the process.
  4. AI may also have an impact on the globalization of publishing. It can be an especially useful tool for international authors wanting to break into the U.S. book market. Translating books is expensive but with AI, translation costs can come down and authors and publishers may be more willing to make the investment.
    • There has also been a shift in how readers in the U.S. feel about books set in other parts of the world. Especially in children’s books, they’re increasingly embracing settings beyond American borders, which can clear the path for more authors from other countries.
    • At the same time, the desire for making connections at home has helped fuel the return of the local indie bookstore. For authors, of course, that is a marketing opportunity not to be neglected.   
Want to hear the entire conversation with Jane Friedman? You can listen to the podcast episode here.

Over to You

What are your thoughts about what’s happening in publishing? Or AI? Are you embracing the technology, or boycotting it? Let us know in the comments.

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