September 2019 marked the 40th anniversary of the establishment of PLR for authors. Jim Parker looks at what's happening overseas.
It is now 40 years since UK authors won the legal right to receive payment from government to compensate them for the free lending out of their books by public libraries.
The passing of the Public Lending Right (PLR) Act in the UK in 1979 was the result of a 20-year struggle, led by the Writers’ Action Group – notably Brigid Brophy, Maureen Duffy, Francis King and Ted Willis, with support from many other writers, and of course the SoA.
The UK was not the first country to establish PLR, however. That was Denmark in 1946, followed by Norway in 1947 and Sweden in 1954. And even then, it was not a new idea. A resolution passed at the Nordic Authors’ Association meeting in 1919 called on governments to compensate authors for library lending of their books.
Currently 34 countries across the world have PLR systems, all but four of which are in Europe. (Outside Europe the first PLR system to be established was in New Zealand in 1973, followed by Australia in 1974, and then Canada and Israel in 1986.) Around 26 other countries recognise the legal right of authors to license the lending out of their works but have not yet set up systems to enable authors to be remunerated. This can be where there is no authors’ organisation in place to administer a PLR system, or where book lending by public libraries – the essential component in most PLR systems – has been excluded in legislation from any PLR obligation.
PLR continues to spread. The most recent system to get up and running is in Poland, where the first payments to authors for the lending out of their books by public libraries were made in 2016.
"Currently 34 countries across the world have PLR systems, all but four of which are in Europe."
European Union Member States are required by law to set up PLR systems. The Rental and Lending Right Directive (1992, reconstituted in 2006) gives authors and other rightsholders an exclusive right to license or prohibit the lending of their works by libraries. However, Member States may opt out of an exclusive right provided that they remunerate authors for the loan of their works. Member States must include public libraries in their PLR schemes but are permitted to exclude the lending of authors’ works from other categories of library.
Outside the EU, lending right is not a requirement under international copyright law. As a result, there are no PLR systems yet in Africa, South America or Asia, and indeed the only countries outside Europe operating PLR systems are Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Israel. But things are changing. A PLR campaign has been launched in the US by the Authors’ Guild. Malawi, Zanzibar and Greece have recently introduced PLR legislation and are preparing to set up schemes; and draft copyright legislation in Turkey making provision for PLR awaits ministerial clearance before being submitted to parliament.
PLR can also function as part of a country’s support structure for its own culture and language. So in several European countries (e.g. Denmark, Sweden and Norway) PLR is not covered by copyright law, and is only payable to authors writing in the national language(s) of that country. Outside Europe, the PLR systems in Australia and Canada exist to support authors who are nationals of those countries.
Show me the money
Generally speaking funding for PLR payments is provided by regional or central government and is not taken from library budgets. The principle that PLR payments should be the responsibility of government and not be a burden on libraries is one that we advocate everywhere.
"The principle that PLR payments should be the responsibility of government and not be a burden on libraries is one that we advocate everywhere."
There are two main approaches to administration. In countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the Slovak Republic and Lithuania, PLR is managed by a collective management organisation (CMO) alongside other rights subject to licence like photocopying. (The writers’ CMO in the UK is ALCS.) In other countries PLR is a right with its own legislation and is administered by a government body. So in the UK, PLR is administered by the British Library. PLR remuneration systems can also be funded directly by government without any legislative basis (as in Canada, Malta and Israel) but this of course can leave them vulnerable to closure.
Most commonly, PLR is distributed to authors in the form of payments related to how often their works have been lent out by libraries. The UK uses this payment-per-loan approach. Alternatively, payment can be made to authors in line with how many copies of their books are held by libraries – the stock, or title, count method is used in Canada, Denmark and Australia. In France, part of the overall PLR fund comes from a small payment made by suppliers when they sell a book to a library. The remaining part of the PLR fund is made up by a small fee paid by the government for every registered library user.
Many countries combine elements from different approaches. In Slovenia, for example, PLR payments are made to authors for loans of their books but PLR funding is also used to provide study grants and scholarships. In addition to writers, other contributors to books such as illustrators, translators, editors and photographers commonly qualify for PLR payments; and in several countries publishers share the PLR payments with the authors.
PLR payments make a real difference to authors’ lives. In the UK around 24,000 writers, illustrators and translators receive payments of up to a maximum of £6,600 each year.
For many, particularly writers who are not among the bestsellers, this is their biggest source of income in an age when authors’ incomes from publishing are falling everywhere. PLR can be a life-saver for writers with long backlists of published works that remain available for loan in public libraries even though the books may be out of print. In France and Germany PLR funds are used to provide pensions for authors.
In some countries it can also be bequeathed at an author’s death to his/her family for up to 70 years. And PLR is not just restricted to public library loans of authors’ works. In Australia the Educational Lending Right makes payments to authors for the presence of their books in school libraries. In Germany higher education libraries are included in PLR.
Some of the benefits are not financial. Many authors in the UK find that the details provided by the PLR office showing how often their books have been borrowed from public libraries are a great morale booster – especially when the loans relate to an older book no longer available in the shops.
In the words of author Tracy Chevalier: ‘PLR is about more than money, though of course that is welcome. Getting my cheque each year is a reminder that people want to read my books rather than simply own them.’
This article was originally published in the 2019 Autumn issue of The Author.
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About Jim Parker
Dr Jim Parker is the former Head of PLR in the UK and is now Co-ordinator for the International PLR Network (www. plrinternational. com), which facilitates the exchange of best practice and provides technical assistance to countries looking to set up PLR systems. An earlier version of this article appeared in the magazine of the World International Property Organisation (WIPO).