Saturday, 30 June 2012

Public Lending Rights and E-Books

The Public Lending Right is the right for authors to receive payment for loans made through public libraries. In the UK the Public Lending Rights Act was passed in 1976 and the first payment to authors were made in 1984. In 2011-12 £6.5 million pounds was distributed to authors under the scheme at a rate of 6.05p per loan. 

Since learning about it I've always wondered how PLR was calculated prior to electronic LM systems were introduced. Apparently they use loan data from a sample of public libraries and I've often pondered on the man power involved in the early days. However, until recently PLR was not something that encroached on my practice much, especially not since I moved into academic libraries where the payments aren't made. However there has been a recent announcement regarding the future of PLR which did get my attention because it raised an interesting point about ebooks that had previously escaped my notice. The fact is that authors do not receive PLR payments for the loan of digital editions of their titles through public libraries even though the Digital Economy Act of 2010 makes provisions for these payments to be made. 

Now often when I talk about the issues associated with ebook lending in libraries I talk about publishers and their increasing coolness towards companies such as Overdrive. Although The Guardian says that The Society of Authors shares this coolness I can't help but wonder how much of an impact extending PLR to ebooks (and incidentally audio books) would have on their attitude. Despite the fact that PLR payments are never going to reach vast sums for individuals there seems something fundamentally wrong about not paying authors for digital loans. If I was an author, watching digital sales climb I wound certainly be wondering about the impact on my PLR payments and questioning the refusal of the DCMS to implement it. I certainly wouldn't be putting any pressure on my publisher to allow e-lending if I knew I wasn't going to receive remuneration for the loans.

This said there is the case (in my opinion a flawed case) that including e-loans and audio books in PLR calculations wouldn't have any noticeable effect. It goes like this:

  • As the DCMS has been cutting the PLRs budget, there is no guarantee that including elending and ABs would result in an increase of this budget. I'm not saying that is right but it is a reasonable conclusion.
  • This means the same budget would be split more ways resulting in a smaller price paid per loan. 
  • If you assume that physical lending and elending statistics are equivalent  and that people borrow the same audio books as real books then incorporating e-loans serves no purpose. Proportionally the figures would stay the same.
The problem with this is that we know that physical lending and e lending is not equivalent, if only because so many publishers refuse to engage with libraries over e-lending. The difference between audio books and physical books must be even larger given the tiny proportion of non fiction books published in audio format. So introducing ABs and EBs into the PLR might mean a shift in the payments received by authors. It might also encourage authors to think more positively about e-lending in libraries.

PLR for Ebooks is only a small part of a large problem when it comes to e lending in libraries but given that the DEA 2010 provides for it there seems no excuse for not making amendments to the appropriate legislation, even if no extra money is available. However if it is to happen we certainly need a functioning PLR registrar and it is exactly this that the DCMS seems to be trying to do away with. So if you believe that PLR is important, for any type of book, why not respond to the consultation currently underway on PLR Functions and Funding and try and stop it being absorbed into another organisation. 

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