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Fighting for their rights – Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society

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Susan Elkin talks to the dedicated media team at the Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society, an organisation whose mission is to scour the globe to seek out and distribute royalty payments for Britain’s broadcast writers

Deep in a seventies office block in Holborn, eight people are hard at work. Some are combing the Radio Times. Others are working on equivalent publications from countries such as Belgium, Latvia and Japan. In the corner is a television set and, from time to time, someone plays part of a video or DVD playing close attention to the credits, which can be tricky if they’re in, say Hungarian or Danish. Elsewhere there is a cassette player and a CD player.

The atmosphere in the broadcast media department of the Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society is intense. Material written for broadcast in Britain and then re-used elsewhere should, of course, command a royalty payment for the writer. If they take your work and show it without paying you, that is theft.

Broadcast media manager Colette Scourse and her busy team of seven royalties managers, two of whom are senior, are scrupulously monitoring and tracking which programmes have been broadcast. Eventually the monies collected are distributed to the original writer. And this is money he or she wouldn’t otherwise have had. So if you’ve ever written anything for radio or television, read on.

“Our job is to collect and distribute fees for secondary usage of writers’ work on television and radio from a wide range of countries,” says Scourse, adding that the basic criteria for eligibility is that a programme should contain scripted, literary and/or dramatic content.

Founded in 1977, ALCS is a not-for-profit company. Writers started it and writers run it. Every member of its governing body, its board, is a professional writer and includes those who write for broadcast media.

It works closely with the Society of Authors and Writers’ Guild of Great Britain and, by reciprocal agreement, with more than 50 collecting societies across the world. It represents writers of all sorts, including academic authors, journalists, novelists and poets as well as broadcast media writers.

Near Scourse’s team is another working for the remuneration of print media writers. Other colleagues manage finance, communications and legal issues and so on. ALCS employs 35 people – all of them extremely busy.

It is the largest writers’ organisation in the UK with over 44,000 members. It distributed £12,450,288 to writers in 2003/4 which is 6% more than in the previous year. That was the company’s largest ever distribution in a single year.

Of that total, over £3 million went to broadcast media writers last year. Overall 30,000 writers benefited. Since 1977 ALCS has distributed more than £100 million to writers.

Jane Carr, ALCS’s chief executive since January 2004, says: “I have been on an exceedingly steep learning curve as I have explored the range of national and international agreements that produce our almost £13 million income and have witnessed the relentless search for writers which lies at the centre of our internal operations.”

Back in the broadcast media department, Scourse tells me about other aspects of her department’s work. Of course, monitoring ten UK TV signals plus ten UK radio signals by going though publications like Radio Times, is only one aspect of it.

Licences for re-use are granted. Every three months ALCS invoices BBC Prime, for example. BBC Prime pays £410,400 per quarter for satellite-cum-cable retransmission. There is regular fee income from NTL for the cable retransmission Republic of Ireland channels, RTE1 and Network 2 in Northern Ireland too.

Educational recording also generates income. Licences are sold by the Educational Recording Agency UK. That brings in royalties for the off-air recording of television and radio in schools and colleges in the UK. ALCS also receives money for educational recording from Australia, Switzerland, France, Spain and Germany.

Some countries – Netherlands, Italy and Hungary for instance – charge a levy on blank tapes and recording machines. It is intended to compensate rights-owners for the private copying of their broadcast works. The countries concerned have schemes to work out whose work has been recorded and they send the money to ALCS.

Readings of excerpts of literary works on TV and radio are paid for in some countries too – technically known as ‘small rights’. Countries such as Poland and Australia send fees to ALCS for the writers concerned. And Scourse’s department works closely with overseas collecting societies such as Dilia in the Czech Republic, CRC in Canada, Kopiosto in Finland and the delightfully named SCAM in France.

Carr says the search for writers is one of ALCS’s major problems. Some 44,000 writers belong to ALCS and more are in contact but many are ‘missing.’ In some cases ALCS is holding money for writers which, despite its best efforts, it cannot trace.

Anyone who has ever written anything which has been broadcast and but is not registered with ALCS would therefore do well to put that right. What you’ll discover there is what Carr calls “a total commitment to, and the belief in the writer’s right to equitable remuneration”.

To join the society as a member costs £10 per year. Members of the Society of Authors and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain have automatic membership. ALCS also works with other groups such as journalists’ organisation like CIoJ, NUJ and BAJ. There could be money awaiting you, so get in touch. Check the website too (www.alcs.co.uk). It always carries names of writers they’re searching for. “But that’s only a few of the ones on our list,” says Scourse.

ALCS will actually be pleased to hear from you – and you cannot say that about many organisations that you’re trying to get money out of.

* Contact ALCS at 14-18 Marlborough Court, Holborn, London EC1N 2LE on 020 7395 0600 or at alcs@alcs.co.uk

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