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The UK Government’s committee on e-book lending has now reported

Briefly, the report recommends that public libraries in the UK should be able to lend e-books remotely, but that the lending should be restricted in the same way that physical books are restricted. That is, one copy of an e-book can only be loaned to one person at a time and e-books will be assumed to deteriorate and require replacement at a similar rate to physical books. 

Given the lobbying that has gone on, these recommendations are hardly surprising and probably the best that could be achieved: business will always get its way with government, issuing dire warnings of the total collapse of the publishing industry, thousands out of work, etc., etc.  The countervailing arguments, that libraries are the show case for publishers, that readers are buyers of books as well as borrowers of books, appear nowhere in the report.

The major recommendation is that e-books should be subject to Public Lending Right, just as physical books.  This is a major advance, partly because authors will get some reward for loans, but also because it signifies that a book is a book, whatever the format. This conclusion undermines the publishers’ desire to treat them the same way as computer programmes, licensing their use, rather than selling them.

 The UK Government’s response to the report is hardly madly enthusiastic. It receives, rather than accepts, the recommendations and, on the application of PLR to e-books, notes:

 “Government will consider commencing the appropriate provisions of the DEA [Digital Economy Act] 2010 to extend PLR to audio, e-audio and e-books.”  and

 “If remote loans are becoming the primary method of E-Lending in from public libraries, then a fit for purpose PLR should reflect these habits and recompense authors as for other loans from public libraries. Extending the PLR to incorporate remote lending will require primary legislation, and is an amendment we will seek to pursue in future parliamentary sessions, subject to considering whether that would be compatible with the Copyright Directive.  Any increase to PLR funding would need to be considered against evidence of increased loans within the increased remote scope.

 Which is tantamount to saying that PLR may be extended when the economy improves.

Ultimately, the kinds of restrictions placed on e-book lending will not survive: subject to these restrictions in harsh economic times, libraries, if they decide to engage in e-book lending at all, will obtain free e-books from the numerous sources that are available and will buy independently published and self-published works negotiating more open lending rights.

The Committee itself consisted of William Sieghart, the Chairman,  publisher, entrepreneur and philanthropist, Janene Cox (President of the Society of Chief Librarians; Roly Keating, Chief Executive The British Library; Caroline Michel, Chief Executive Peters Fraser & Dunlop (a literary agency); Stephen Page, Chief Executive Faber & Faber (publisher); and Joanna Trollope OBE, Author. That is, only one person with a professional library background for a committee exploring e-lending in libraries.

In the course of the review 28 people appeared before the committee, presumably to give evidence, make the case, etc. Of these, almost half (13) were publishers’ representatives; four for HarperCollins, three for Random House, two for Hachette, and one each for Bloomsbury, Little Brown Book Group, and Penguin (now merged with Random House). In addition, there was a representative of the Publishers’ Associations.  One person appeared to represent readers, he is associated with the Web site Anobii – a social site about books and reading, but we find that the company providing the service is supported by… “HarperCollins, Penguin and The Random House Group”. So, no independent view there! As far as I can determine, only one librarian appears in the list, Nick Stopforth of the Metropolitan Borough of Doncaster.

Of the 174 public library authorities in the UK, only fourteen submitted written evidence to the Committee, although submissions on their behalf may also have been made by the nine local authorities that responded­–however, the fact that only 13% of authorities could be bothered to make a submission is, perhaps, an indication of the level of interest in the subject, with many libraries now cutting back not only on staff and branch libraries, but also book buying.  The possibility of being able to afford e-books in addition is probably remote. Submissions were also made by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, the National Public Library e-books Group of the Society of Chief Librarians, Public Libraries News, The Library Campaign and Voices for the Library.

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