The public lending right and what it does

June 2018

By Jim Parker, Coordinator of the PLR International Network

The public lending right (PLR) is the legal right that allows authors and other right holders to receive payment from government to compensate for the free loan of their books by public and other libraries.

The public lending right (PLR) allows authors and other right holders to receive payment from government to compensate for the free loan of their books by public and other libraries. At a time when authors’ incomes from publishing are falling everywhere, PLR provides vital financial support (photo: tomsickova / iStock / Getty Images Plus).

Maureen Duffy, writer and veteran of the authors that led to the right being introduced in the UK in 1979 after a twenty-year struggle, summarizes PLR as follows:

“First and foremost PLR upholds the principle of ‘no use without payment’. This is the basis for the concept of ‘fair remuneration’ which then carries over into photocopying and digital uses. It is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by which we are entitled to receive income from any exploitation of our work. If it is claimed that this interferes with another universal right – to access to knowledge and culture – our answer is that it supports the creation of new work, and we do not ask teachers to work for nothing.”

Currently 33 countries have PLR systems. The lending right has been recognized in European Union law since 1992 and all but four of the countries with PLR systems are in Europe.

Denmark was the first country to establish a PLR system in 1946, followed by Norway in 1947 and Sweden in 1954. But the idea of a PLR actually dates from 1919 when the Nordic Authors’ Association passed a resolution calling on governments to compensate authors for library lending of their books.

New Zealand was the first country outside of Europe to establish a PLR system in 1973, followed by Australia in 1974, and Canada and Israel in 1986.

Around 26 other countries recognize the legal right of authors to license the loan of their works but have not yet established systems to enable authors to receive PLR remuneration. This is often the case in countries with no collective management organization to administer a PLR system, or where book lending by public libraries – the essential component of most PLR systems – has been excluded in legislation from any PLR obligation.  

The most recent PLR system to begin operation is in Poland where the first payments to authors for the loan of their books by public libraries were made in 2016.

The legal basis for PLR

Most PLR systems exist in Europe where member states of the European Union are required by law, under the Rental and Lending Right Directive (Directive 2006/115/EC), to provide authors with an exclusive right over the lending out of their works or at least to provide them with remuneration for the lending out of their works.

The Directive (first passed in 1992 and reconstituted in 2006) gives authors and other right holders an exclusive right to authorize or prohibit the lending of their works by libraries.  Member states, however, may derogate from an exclusive right provided that they remunerate authors for the loan of their works. EU members must include public libraries in their PLR schemes but are permitted to exclude the lending of authors’ works from other categories of library; they may also give priority to their national cultural objectives in establishing PLR schemes.

But, the lending right is not a requirement under international copyright law and there is no obligation for governments outside the European Union to set up PLR systems. As a consequence, the spread of PLR has been patchy. For example, there are, as yet, no PLR systems in Africa, South America or Asia. The only countries outside Europe currently operating PLR systems are Australia, Canada, Israel and New Zealand.

But things are changing. Malawi and Greece have recently introduced PLR legislation and are preparing to set up schemes; the Government of Hong Kong (SAR) has agreed in principle to introduce PLR; and draft copyright legislation in Turkey making provision for PLR awaits ministerial clearance before being submitted to parliament.   

And finally, PLR can also function as part of a country’s support structure for its own culture and language. In several European countries, such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden PLR is only payable to authors writing in the national language(s) of that country. Similarly, the PLR systems in Australia and Canada support authors who are nationals of those countries.   

How PLR operates

Generally speaking, funding for PLR payments is provided by regional or central government and is not taken from library budgets. In the few cases where libraries pay for PLR, such as in The Netherlands where public libraries operate as independent entities, PLR is viewed by the library community as a legitimate charge that fairly compensates authors for the use of their works free of charge by the public. 

Thirty-three countries currently have PLR systems, all but four of them (Australia, Canada, Israel and New Zealand) are in Europe (photo: Photons / iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus).

There are two main approaches to PLR administration. First, where PLR is managed by a collective management organization alongside other rights subject to license like photocopying. This is the case in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Slovakia and Spain. And second, where PLR is a right to remuneration with its own legislation and is administered by a government body. This is the case in the UK, where the British Library administers the right. PLR remuneration systems can also be funded directly by government without any legislative basis. This is the case in Canada, Israel and Malta, but such arrangements can leave PLR systems vulnerable to closure.

Different approaches to PLR payments

Most commonly PLR-related remuneration is distributed to authors in the form of payments related to how often their works have been loaned to members of the public by libraries. Such a payment-per-loan approach is found in Finland, Germany, Malta, the Netherlands and the UK. 

Alternatively, payment can be made to authors in line with how many copies of their books are held by libraries. This approach exists in Australia, Canada and Denmark.

Other approaches include relating payments to book purchases. This is the system in France where part of the overall PLR fund comes from a small payment made by publishers 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 of these different approaches. For example, in Slovenia PLR payments are made to authors for the loan of their books but PLR funding is also used to provide authors with study grants and scholarships.

Who receives PLR payments?

But beyond writers, other individuals, such as illustrators, translators, editors and photographers (which may variously be considered authors in different jurisdictions), contribute to the production of a published work and as such, commonly qualify for PLR payments. And in several countries publishers also share PLR payments with authors.     

PLR currently applies in many countries both to printed books and various audiovisual materials, including audio books, loaned by libraries. In these countries a wider range of creators are eligible for payment, including composers, producers and narrators of audio books.

E-book lending is a rapidly growing feature of public library activity across the world. Following a decision by the European Court of Justice in 2016 (Vereniging Openbare Bibiotheken v Stichting Leenrecht – Case C-174/15) the Lending Right Directive is deemed to cover the loan of e-books on the basis of one copy per user (the copy can only be loaned again when the e-book is no longer accessible to the previous borrower). The UK has now extended its PLR system to include e-book loans where the law provides for PLR payment while allowing publishers to propose a variety of licensing options. A system of payment for e-book loans will also be introduced in Denmark this year. Beyond Europe, Canada included e-books in its PLR system in 2017.

In light of the expansion of e-book lending by public libraries, often PLR systems are now extended to include e-book loans (photo: Jacob Ammentorp Lund / iStock / Getty Images Plus).

Why PLR is important for authors

PLR payments make a real difference to authors’ lives.

In an age when authors’ incomes from publishing are falling everywhere, PLR provides vital financial support. For example, in the UK, 24,000 writers, illustrators and translators receive payments of up to a maximum of GBP 6,600 each year. For many, particularly writers who are not among the bestsellers, this is their biggest source of income. 

First and foremost PLR upholds the principle of ‘no use without payment’.

Maureen Duffy, novelist and non-fiction author

And PLR can be a life-saver for established and retired writers with long backlists of published works which remain available for loan in public libraries even when their works are out of print.  

In addition to paying authors for the loan of their works by public libraries, PLR funding can also be paid out as grants provided for research and travel, or as pensions. In some countries it can also be bequeathed upon an author’s death to his or her family for up to 70 years. 

PLR is not just restricted to the loan of authors’ works by public libraries. In Australia, for example, the Educational Lending Right makes payments to authors for books featuring in the collections of school libraries. This is very popular among children’s writers. And in Germany higher education libraries are included in the PLR.

The PLR also generates other benefits for authors. For example, authors in the United Kingdom find that data generated by the PLR office on how often their books have been borrowed from public libraries are a great morale booster – especially when the loans relate to older books that are no longer available in the shops. “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,” notes author, Tracy Chevalier.

The PLR International Network

The PLR International Network brings together those countries with PLR systems to facilitate the exchange of best practices and provide advice and technical assistance to countries looking to set up their own PLR systems for the first time.

An introductory guide to the PLR, guidelines on PLR best practice and how PLR operates in each country are available on the website of the PLR International Network at: www.plrinternational.com.

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