A letter was recently forwarded to me. It was written anonymously and then distributed to various individuals with a request that its content be “discussed in a public forum.” So I’m going to discuss it here, though maybe not quite in the way its author or authors intended.
The letter, titled “Open and Anonymous Letter to Members of the Publishing Industry, Content Consumers and Other Information Industry Members Regarding the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC)” raises two interesting issues, one intentionally and the other, apparently, unintentionally. The issue about which the anonymous author hopes to generate discussion is the practices of the CCC, a company whose actions and style of doing business have (with good reason) raised eyebrows.
The question this letter raises unintentionally has to do with the professionalism and ethics of the letter’s author or authors. According to the person who forwarded the letter to me, “the author’s intent was to create a stir.” And so I suspect it will, but not only for the reasons the author hoped.
I’ve posted a copy of the letter here. Anyone who reads it will immediately notice several things:
- It is semi-coherent. Not only is it filled with weird syntax and bizarre word choices (sample sentence: “The ‘not-for-profit’ moniker may be a false claim at best, and is certainly a disarming factor for any person or organization that deals with the CCC”), but its author repeatedly makes the slightly hilarious mistake of confusing the term Reproduction Rights Organization with Reproductive Rights Organization, making this perhaps the first public document to try (however unintentionally) to put the CCC in the same category as Planned Parenthood.
- More importantly, the letter spends most of its time posing questions, some of which are unanswerable (“Can the information industry as a whole be damaged by the CCC’s misleading and aggressive behavior?”), some of which are syntactically incoherent (“From the business perspective of risk and reward, what is the length of time that a positive return-on-investment [versus any potential legal settlement amounts using historical precedents] once a license is eliminated?”), and some of which are simply indecipherable (“Does the software report rights check usage and if so, what is the usage?”).
- Also importantly, the letter traffics in unsupported or dubious assertions. “Publishers large, medium and small,” it claims, “should be receiving tens of millions of dollars more from the CCC. Period.” (Oh, “period”? Well, that settles it then.) It says that the CCC fails to “(act) with integrity in the collection and distribution of funds received,” but provides no examples of inappropriate or dishonest collection or distribution. It makes repeated reference to the CCC’s loss of federal nonprofit status in 1978, but fails to add that the CCC does enjoy not-for-profit status in the State of New York, where it is incorporated (though not headquartered).
- The letter presents data in a manner that is irresponsible at best and intentionally dishonest at worst. At the end of the letter is a graph that purports to illustrate how little licensing revenue the CCC distributes to rightsholders compared to three similar organizations. In the graph, the columns for BMI, ASCAP, and the Copyright Licensing Agency are all more than twice as high as the one for the CCC. But look closely at the Y axis and you’ll see why: it’s because the percentage baseline used to create the bar graph is not 0, but 60. This means that, contrary to what the graph slyly suggests, the other organizations do not distribute more than twice as much in royalty payments as the CCC does, but rather between 13% and 16% more. (The less-dramatic numbers are given in the text, but the chart is still inexcusably misleading.)
None of this is to say that the letter raises no legitimate questions, or that the CCC is not engaged in questionable practices. Why does the CCC distribute 13-16% less in payments to its rightsholders than similar reproduction rights organizations do? Do some publishers, in fact, get preferential treatment from the CCC? What is the exact relationship between the CCC and the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organizations? These are good questions. But there is nothing in the letter to suggest that anyone has posed them to the CCC. It would be an interesting project to cull the reasonable, coherent, and answerable questions from the tangled mess of this letter and present them to the CCC along with an invitation to answer them publicly.
I should say, for the record, that I have no dog in this fight, and my goal here is by no means to defend the CCC. I have, at times, been disappointed with the CCC’s actions and practices, in particular its decision to bankroll a lawsuit against Georgia State University over its e-reserves program. I think the CCC ought to stop implying that it continues to enjoy the same nonprofit status that it had when founded in 1978 (it does not), and I think its customers and its reputation would both benefit significantly from a greater transparency and straightforwardness in its communications, but I have no particular opinion in general about the CCC as a company. I do, however, have an opinion about people who, hiding behind a screen of anonymity, issue semi-coherent, borderline dishonest, and innuendo-laden public attacks—particularly ones that repeatedly call for greater “transparency” on the part of the (anonymous) attacker’s target.
“Creating a stir,” in other words, is all good fun, but it’s not particularly useful or helpful. Asking clear and intellectually honest questions in a manner and in a forum that allow the target of those questions to respond, on the other hand, can be both useful and helpful. Of course, doing so requires one to take responsibility for what one says and how one says it—which is a bit more demanding than simply launching an anonymous attack.