Sunday, August 16, 2009

PLR in a Digital Age

The UK Government is reportedly looking to extend the Public Lending Rights (PLR) programme to include non-print publications such as digital books. The PLR programme compensates authors from a central fund for the potential retail loss of sales of their works. The fund isn’t endless and is capped and shared between registered authors but only applies to printed books.

It is clear that libraries have the opportunity in a digital world to become the community hubs for information, services and media. However, there are many questions still to be answered before this can be realised not least of which is their ability to fund their position within the digital landscape. Some would suggest that it is funding that will ultimately determine their role.

The UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) claim that in 2007/8 there were over 11 million loans of audio books and the figure is growing. The ebook is still finding its feet within the UK library but with the entrance of players such as Overdrive from the US and Gardners acquisition of Askews and Holt Jackson, it is now easy to see that digital has an even bigger opportunity than today. The issue of pay versus free and the library relationship with the High Street is still outstanding on price but it is clear that ebooks will be available from any and every library and will not take up any space, removes the question of overdue fines and could be loaned from any armchair.

The Digital Britain report, published earlier this year recommended looking at extending PLR and the DCMS is urging all parties to participate in a public consultation to discuss extending PLR. The consultation ends on 16 October. However, the question remains as to the whether the size of the pot increases or the funds just get spread thinner? It is hard to see how ebooks can be effectively covered whilst their pricing remains unstable and their market penetration is small. Why not reward an author on the work, irrespective of the format, after all a work is created once and rendered many times, so a book is a book, no matter how many times it is rendered into different formats.


Martin Taylor said...

There are several problems with extending the PLR into the digital arena. Among them:

- The PLR in its present form only compensates authors for lost income on public lending. I don't understand why it doesn't also compensate publishers who also lose and are typically equal financial partners in the book, for good reason.

- Extending the PLR to ebooks extends flawed thinking which often happens when you try to take a norm from one medium and extend it to another. Publishers and authors need to reconsider the common system of selling an ebook outright, one-time to a library for no recurring income, as if it were equivalent to selling a paper book. It isn't. Ebooks never wear out. You don't need as many of them since they are easily discoverable. That means each book can be loaned more efficiently, more often, and to a much larger catchment area because there's no travel or freight involved.

- And if ebooks are loaned free, delivered with a click to comfortable, high quality ebook readers (no clumsy PCs any more) from home, office or whereever you are, they will compete much more strongly with paid copies than the present paper books borrowed from libraries. Why click to pay when you can click for free? Ownership won't be as important to an 'e' reader as it is to 'p' reader. There's no emotional attachment to a comouter file. So the irony is that the institutions that ought to care about preserving and strengthening literary culture may end up undermining its financial base.

The solution is to shift the digital library model from a one-time sale to a subscription or rental model. Libraries can still purchase paper books, either from commercial print runs or from print on demand deals.

Shifting to a recurring payment model will ensure that publishers and authors are fairly compensated and the PLR will be unnecessary.

Publishers and authors need to move to this model sooner rather than later before too many indestructible ebooks end up in the library world, owned by libraries who will pay Overdrive or Gardners subscription fees for their technology to continue accessing these ebooks but not a penny will be returned to the author or publisher who will have received their small one-time payment.

We really don't need to be at the whim of the benevolent taxpayer with some sort of PLR when a perfectly equitable and simple commercial solution is available for immediate implementation.

Martyn Daniels said...

Martin i think much of what you say is logical and tripping forward into just extending PLR may not be the right thing. The other point is that PLR is a fixed sum to be dispersed across all with a cap on the maximum given any one indidivual so it isn't as if we are going to get a bigger pot.

yardleyscott said...

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