Publishers worried about public libraries lending ebooks have not been restricted to the U.S. In 2010, the UK’s Publishers Association (PA), warned libraries that they were considering preventing remote borrowing of ebooks unless certain protections were put in place, an announcement which caused a great deal of concern on the part of librarians and library ebook distributors.
As a result, last year, the government commissioned a review of e-lending in public libraries in England. Led by William Sieghart, founder of The Forward Prizes for Poetry, the panel sought input from a broad spectrum of stakeholders to inform recommendations for government about library ebook lending. Among those who contributed to the review were the Society of Authors (SoA), the Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), and The Bookseller, as well as the PA.
The report was published on March 27. Unlike in the U.S., where authors are only compensated for the first sale of their book, in the U.K., authors are paid by the government when their books are borrowed at libraries under something called Public Lending Right (PLR). The Sieghart report recommended that the PLR be extended to include onsite borrowing of ebooks, and that legislative changes be made to allow this to be expanded to off-site lending as well. The report also recommended increasing the PLR pot to pay for these additions, and that the life-span of a library ebook be limited. The report did not, however, champion the publishing industry’s proposed restriction of off-site borrowing, recommending that both remote and on-site e-lending be offered to patrons for free.
On July 9, culture minister Ed Vaizey confirmed that the government would be implementing the recommendation to extend PLR to ebooks borrowed onsite, affirming in a letter to the SoA that the implementation will take place “in time for the PLR loans sample year beginning July 2014.”
In its response to the recommendations, the government agreed that the PLR should recompense authors for remote loans, and called the needed law “an amendment we will seek to pursue in future parliamentary sessions.” However, so far, there has been no indication as to when this amendment will be added.
Stakeholders pleased but pushing onward
As an interim step, this decision was well received by authors, publishers, and library professionals alike, but many felt it won’t be enough without the timely resolution of the remote lending issue.
The SoA declared it was ‘delighted’ with the commitment offered by the government.
Others expressed a more cautious optimism. Alan Gibbons, author, library campaigner and organiser of Campaign for the Book, said the government appear to be “moving in the right direction over the payment of PLR for audio books and e-lending,” but said “We should continue to press government to develop a coherent strategy in relation to ebook lending that balances the interests of authors, publishers, libraries, and borrowers.”
Philip Jones, editor-in-chief of the UK publishing trade magazine, The Bookseller, and founder of Futurebook, said that while the changes go some way to addressing the issue, there was a need to “recognize that not all loans are made in this way.” He summed up the current state of affairs by saying, ““The government should look to future-proof its changes, but at the moment they don’t even look present-proof.” He underlined that PLR should reward authors “however their work is accessed, and wherever it is read.”
Phil Bradley, president of CILIP, praised Sieghart’s recommendations as ‘broadly in line with [CILIP’s] submission’, but raised concerns about the changes to PLR if they weren’t extended to remote e-lending, and the possible restriction of remote lending that might result. He said: “Remote e-lending helps those in rural communities who do not have a library close to hand, those who are housebound, shift workers and so on…A limitation based on the restriction of lending e-books to within a library setting is damaging to the library, its members, authors and publishers.”
Ian Anstice, librarian and founder of the Public Libraries News website, supported this view, arguing that: “The general reaction of people to the notion that e-lending should only be allowed from library buildings rightly strikes people as odd and even absurd. Putting too many breaks on the system, applying too much “friction”, will break the system.”
The specter of the many UK-based government-run libraries closing for lack of funds definitely hovers over the discourse. Gibbons raised the issue of PLR for loans from the volunteer libraries which sometimes try to step in and bridge the worst of the service gap. Bradley underlined the that closing libraries increases the need for remote downloads: “It’s particularly important in times when libraries are being closed and having their opening hours reduced to provide access to materials in as many ways as possible,” he said. And other librarians fear that, with policy makers putting heavy emphasis on library visits as a method of evaluating the value of the service and its continued funding, restricting ebook lending to libraries themselves may be shortsightedly seen as a way to drive usage of the library building, at the expense of overall library usage and patron needs. For now, authors, publishers, librarians and library users will be watching the government’s next step with interest.