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Rant: My fight against German bureaucracy

Nathaniel Flakin is locked in a battle with pen pushers at a royalties agency for authors. He might not win, but he has some advice.

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Nathaniel Flakin is locked in a battle with pen pushers at a royalties agency for authors. He might not win, but he has some advice. IMAGO / Westend61

Have you ever heard of GEMA? That is the Gesellschaft für musikalische Aufführungs- und mechanische Vervielfältigungsrechte. Yes, that is their real name. If you ever want to play music in public in Germany, you have to give them money. This is supposed to assist “creators.”

But as the Frankfurter Rundschau reported back in 2012, most of the GEMA’s income goes to just 3,400 artists – 5% of their members. As the newspaper explained, if a concert organiser has to pay €500 for a performance by an upcoming band, perhaps €50 will go to that band, while the other €450 will go to more established artists. Put more simply: every time you buy music in Germany, you are paying the German Schlager singer Dieter Bohlen.

Many people know and despise GEMA. There is a similar but less well-known association for written works: the Verwertungsgesellschaft Wort or VG Wort. I must admit I never heard of it until protests took place at the Free University of Berlin back in 2016. At the time I barely understood what the protests were about – I supported them because I just really like protesting.

The VG Wort collects money from copy shops, libraries and universities. Each time a copyrighted book is lent or copied, they collect a fee. Studying history, I had to copy tens of thousands of pages. Who knows how much I paid to VG Wort as a result? The protests in 2016 started because the VG Wort was trying to stop professors from making readings available to students online as PDFs. This is means restricting the flow of information, but is supposed to help authors.

I used to assume that people got money for writing books. Now I know it’s actually the opposite: writers, unless they are tremendously successful, usually get nothing; often they have to pay money themselves to see their words in print. Self-publishing with Amazon is lowering the bar to entry, but still not making anyone rich.

When I published a biography of a Jewish resistance fighter in World War II (notice how subtly I slipped in advertisement for my book, which you can get in German for €14.80 from Schmetterling Verlag or in English for £14.99 from Pluto Press, and at all good book stores), I learned something incredible: I was eligible to get free money from VG Wort. As soon as the book was available in five German libraries, they would send me a check for €1,400.

Now I was on the other side of the fence. Suddenly VG Wort didn’t sound so bad. Signing up was not easy, as the paperwork was more complicated than getting a residency permit. But after half a day filling out forms, with some friendly advice from Germans, I was able to register my book on their web site. Now all I had to do was wait a year or two for my cheque.

I waited, and waited and waited. In the meantime a global pandemic started, which meant I could really use the stimulus for writers. At the beginning of this year, I started to wonder where the money was. I called them and they explained: when I registered my book, I had clicked on the most prominent link on their website. For that registration, I would get €0. If I wanted the €1,400, I should’ve clicked on a less-prominent link and registered the same book a second time. Now it was too late.

They told me I could have studied the association’s constitution — 11 pages of dense legalese. Even looking at it now, it doesn’t appear to tell me what I should have clicked.

The bureaucrats assured me that the necessary forms were easy to find. I felt kind of like in that book by Douglas Adams: “It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.'”

So am I dumb? I am not the brightest when it comes to Papierkram. I asked around with friends who had been involved with books. One quite successful young historian had mastered the system and gotten a number of checks. But far more people had not even made it as far as I had: either they had never heard that they were eligible for free money, or they were overwhelmed by the paperwork and never attempted to fill it out.

By design or by oversight, VG Wort appears to work like the GEMA, paying out money to established authors and excluding new ones. It is not necessarily malicious – there is just something about working in German bureaucracy that makes it impossible to understand that there are people who do not work in said bureaucracy. I got a fairly sympathetic person from VG Wort on the phone and asked how they could have reasonably expected me to understand their system. There is nothing like an FAQ or instructions for new authors. They told me I could have studied the association’s constitution — 11 pages of dense legalese, and even looking at it now, it doesn’t appear to tell me what I should have clicked.

What is the lesson of the story? I know this is a Luxusproblem, as the Germans say. Other people are getting kicked out of their homes by capricious bureaucrats, or denied basic social subsistence.

I also know that I am a hypocrite, sort of. Had I gotten my money from VG Wort, it seems unlikely that I would now be writing this column. But that’s one of the great things about being a journalist: turning your personal frustration into grand narratives. We don’t make much money, but occasionally we allow ourselves to be indulgent with our spleen. 

A lot of great writing on Exberliner has come from terrible experiences with German bureaucracies, be it the BVG (again and again) or the Ausländerbehörde or the police (again and again and again and again — that’s just the last few months) or the lawyers who send threatening letters to people who they claim downloaded things illegally. 

The goal of all this journalistic venting is to help our readers. German bureaucrats can only deny people their rights because so many people are resigned. Thousands of evictions take place in Berlin every year, which is only possible because it’s just a small number of people who resist and thus force a huge police operation. If more people fought back, evictions would be totally impossible. The same thing on the BVG: If everyone just slowed down a little bit when dealing with ticket checkers, they wouldn’t be able to throw poor people into prison for not having a ticket.

I don’t think I’m ever going to get the money for my book. But I can at least say that this system seems really messed up. I don’t want anyone to be collecting money in my name from libraries and universities. I want information to be available freely. Yes, as an author I could always use money. But I think it would be easier to get that from a modest tax on Amazon than by shaking down everyone who needs to make a photocopy.

So let’s abolish VG Wort. Until then, if you have written or translated a book that’s available in German libraries, no matter what language, try to get money from them. Call them and have them explain the process to you step-by-step. Call them again and have them confirm you’ve done it right. Try to take up as much of bureaucrats’ time as you reasonably can.