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Is the Big Book Shrinking?

The Big Book remains the place to find AA's program of recovery. But thanks to competing publishers and free apps, literature revenues are falling. Is there anything World Services can do?

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Will AA's publishing revenues soon become small beer? Photo via

By Meg Williams

07/09/13

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When the 63rd General Service Conference of Alcoholics Anonymous met this April, the delegates representing AA groups from the US and Canada passed a motion to allow AA World Services (AAWS) to “use commissioned online stores to sell and distribute digital AA literature.”

AA literature is already widely available on the web. This includes the AA website's links to the current edition of Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Steps and Twelve TraditionsBut other vendors also publish editions of the Big Book online, downloadable for free or for a nominal charge. At this point, AAWS has already lost considerable business to these other publishers. Many would ask, “Why is AA allowing this?” The answer: AA has no legal recourse to stop it.

Individual AA members must choose whom to pay for the Big Book, if they choose to pay at all.

The first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous has been public domain since 1967, when AA failed to renew its copyright on the text. AA also failed to renew the copyright on the second edition, causing it to lapse in 1983. In both cases, most sources say that AAWS failed to act simply because of a lack of understanding of the applicable copyright laws.

Of course, other theories have been proposed. Some suggest that AA let the copyright lapse to dodge any liability resulting from the fact that Bill Wilson claimed he was the only author at the time the Big Book was first copyrighted. (Other people are known to have written portions of the book, including “To Employers” and “The Doctor’s Opinion,” for example.) Moving these works into public domain then re-copywriting the third edition and not claiming that Bill Wilson was the only author would prevent anyone from suing AA over the original copyright. These same sources add that AA's General Service Office (GSO) claimed to misunderstood the law in order to hide its true motives. This theory needs to be qualified by saying that these sources seem to have a bone to pick with AA in general. They present evidence to support their claims; however, it is very difficult to confirm its veracity, due to the lack of documentation available to the public from the AA's service structures.

Whatever its reasons, this apparent oversight has caused a considerable headache for AAWS and the GSO as a whole, because a large part of their budget comes from literature sales. The projected net income from sales for the year of 2013 was $7,782,800. This figure represents profits after subtracting all costs for royalties, manufacturing and shipping. This money was expected to cover 54% of GSO’s expenses for 2013. The 2013 gross income was budgeted at $95,000 less than 2012—showing a decline in sales, though not a steep one. GSO hoped to compensate by reducing production and distribution costs in order to increase the profit margin.

Although the current laws would have extended the copyright until at least 2021, AAWS must adhere to the laws that were in place when the first and second editions were published. The applicable law, the 1909 Copyright Act, dictates that copyrights must be renewed in writing after 30 years. International copyright laws, on the other hand, already followed the current Berne Convention when the first two editions were published. This extends copyrights to 50 years after the death of the author. Assuming Bill W. was the only author of the Big Book—which is, as we've seen, a big assumption—this would extend the copyright to 2021. 

As a result, AAWS argues that it retains control of the Big Book in every country except the US. Many AA’s claim that the Board of Trustees, GSO and AAWS have taken action against individual members who have reproduced the book in foreign countries.

Mitchell K., a nationally recognized historian and Alcoholics Anonymous archivist, asserted in his 1998 “Open Letter to AA Members” that “For over a decade now, the AA World Service Board of Trustees has been involved in several court cases or has given their approval for several others. AA members have been incarcerated and have met with severe financial hardship. AA World Services has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of our money in legal fees including consultation. There is currently a court case pending in Germany that threatens an AA member with jail and financial ruin.”

A number of lawsuits were filed against an individual German member named Matthew. Litigation continued until at least 2003, when Matthew had finally run out of financial resources for his legal defense. He began to pay the fines levied against him, which stand at upwards of $200,000.

In the course of these legal proceedings, a number of AA members attempted to bring the issue to general vote within the AA conferences, both in the US and in Germany. Eventually all efforts were blocked and the litigation continued. No further updates were forthcoming, and no official word from GSO was available on the matter.

Here in the US, AAWS’s troubles come from an almost converse problem. US-based entities such as Hazelden Publishing, Amazon.com and even iPhone app developers can publish and profit from the distribution of the first two editions of the Big Book. Individual AA members must choose whom to pay for it—if they choose to pay at all.

Sara F., a member from South Florida with nine years of sobriety, remembers a local group that gave away the small red pocket versions of the Big Book’s first 164 pages printed by Hazelden: “I know group members were doing it to spread the message," she said. "But I also know that they bought the Hazelden edition instead of the AA version because it was $2 cheaper at the Intergroup office. That can be a lot of money if you’re buying a bunch, but if you can’t spare the difference, maybe don’t buy as many. Supporting AAWS is very important to spreading the message in a bigger way than giving away Big Books.” Sara F. then mentioned the Fourth Tradition that states that every group is autonomous: “They can do what they want, even if it is not supporting the service structures.”

Other AA’s don’t get as involved in the politics of where they purchase their recovery literature. One AA explains: “I think Hazelden's daily meditations are great and super helpful. I am grateful that someone took the time to write them and share them with our fellowship. [The daily meditations] are definitely a great tool to have, especially when traveling to cities outside of New York because the meetings can become scarce.” '

Hazelden Publishing, a branch of the nonprofit Hazelden Foundation, first entered the emerging recovery literature scene when it bought the rights for a book called Twenty-Four Hours a Day in 1954. This daily meditation book has been a part of many people’s recovery and has sold over 8 million copies worldwide.

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