Authors are calling on the government to remunerate them when their ebooks are lent from libraries, calling it “patently unjust” that digital titles are currently borrowed with no payment made to the writer.
Authors are paid 6.05p every time their physical books are borrowed from the UK’s public libraries, up to a maximum of £6,600, under the government-funded Public Lending Right scheme. But ebooks and audiobooks, a growing sector for library users, are not currently included in the scheme, even though the Digital Economy Act of 2010 paved the way for this to be done.
Nicola Solomon of the Society of Authors called it “terribly unfair” and said that “authors should be properly remunerated” for their work. “It’s very important to understand that authors do rely on PLR – it’s not just a nice little bonus. Many authors get PLR who are not bestsellers but do very well in libraries. People borrow very different books from the book they buy,” she said. “And authors can’t continue to write if they are not paid for their work.”
Authors have a legal right to the payments, she said – and could even consider going to court to recover them. “Since 1992 ‘rental and lending right’ has been a part of copyright protection. That means that authors have a legal right to equitable remuneration whenever their works are lent out,” she said. “The failure to make the payments means that the government and libraries are actually infringing the author’s copyright every time they make an ebook loan and authors would be entitled to sue for the losses caused by that infringement. We have no current plans to sue, and don’t know of any authors who are planning to do so – we would hope that the Government would recognise its legal and moral responsibility to make payments to authors particularly as ebook lending from libraries is becoming significant.”
Solomon has written to both culture secretary Ed Vaizey and Conservative MP Louise Mensch, who is sitting on the select committee inquiry into library closures, to highlight the issue. “Any ebook lending should result in a PLR payment to the author … PLR is designed to balance the social need for free public access to books against an author’s right to be remunerated for the use of their work,” she wrote to Vaizey on behalf of the Society of Authors, which includes Philip Gross, Anthony Horowitz and Sarah Waters on its management committee. “We also wish to remind you that section 43 of the Digital Economy Act 2010 extends PLR to audiobooks and ebooks ‘lent out’ from library premises for a limited time but these payments have never been implemented. This is patently unjust and we urge that this provision be brought into force and that extra funds be made available to cover PLR payments for such lending.”
Chair of the society, historical novelist Lindsey Davis, said that authors would “certainly be pushing” for PLR to be extended to ebooks and audiobooks. “We have earned it. It’s not a benefit, it’s a right,” she said. “I would expect to be paid. There is no difference between ebooks and print books – it is all work, produced for people to read … It seems very obvious to me [that an ebook] is just another version of a title, in the same way that a paperback is.”
The issue of ebook lending from libraries is proving to be a thorny one for the books industry. Many publishers have yet to sign up to the practice, believing that libraries should “concentrate on delivering physical books to those least able to afford them, rather than offering ebooks to users who can afford ereaders”. Booksellers are also expressing concerns, with Waterstone’s managing director James Daunt saying last week that library ebook lending “will be a disruptive force”. He added: “If you can download a book for free and read it, why would you want to own it?” Authors, too, have expressed more general fears that it could undervalue retail pricing and increase piracy.
A DCMS spokesman said: “The Digital Economy Act 2010 opened the way for PLR to be extended to library loans of audiobooks and certain categories of ebooks. However, we announced in October 2010 as part of a challenging spending review that we would not proceed with any amendments to PLR legislation to extend PLR to audio and ebooks at this time. Under the existing PLR legislation, PLR applies to loans of books from public libraries.”
Jim Parker, PLR registrar, said it would be possible to pay PLR on ebooks and audiobooks, but – with overall funding at the body already cut by 15% – it would mean reducing the rate per loan on printed titles. “Unless more money was allocated – and we’d all be up for that,” he said.
[Man reads ebook via Frank Fennema / Shutterstock]