Hello, my name is Daniel Gilbert, and I am excited to announce that I’ve joined the team here at the Author’s Interest Project. I’m shadowed by my unofficial research assistant, Butter – who will be facilitating meetings and enforcing minimum standards of vitamin D absorption across the team. As for me, my work focuses on rethinking the role of the Public Lending Right (‘PLR’) in a modern Australian society.

Our first canine team member
(and her associated human)

For those unfamiliar with the scheme, the PLR is a system of compensation for authors provided in connection with the use of their works by public libraries. The scheme was first enacted in 1974 – and whilst it has since been extended to educational works in the form of the Educational Lending Right – it has otherwise remained largely unchanged. 

Yet the potential of the scheme is far-reaching, and investigating its best role is fascinating to me for a number of reasons.

What makes the PLR unique?

Firstly, in Australia the right sits outside of copyright legislation. This is significant because under copyright law solutions which differentiate between nationals of specific countries are generally not permitted. Whilst there are complexities involved in the interpretation of international law, my preliminary research suggests that there is substantial untapped potential to be found in the PLR to ensure that authors are rewarded for the works they create, and the cultural value they generate.

Secondly, as authors have been required to adapt to significant economic, social, and technological changes (including the ability of libraries to engage in remote and electronic lending), this right has remained steadfastly physical; in Australia the PLR does not presently apply to ebooks or audiobooks, and there are significant questions around whether and how such works might be placed within the scheme. There are also possibilities for new arrangements to be made for authors to engage with libraries more directly, given the low marginal cost of production for electronic works.

Thirdly, the right is ‘inalienable’ – meaning that it cannot be transferred to, or subsumed by, another party. This makes the right uniquely capable of rewarding authors for their contributions to culture, as it provides a direct link between the value to libraries of the work and the payments to authors and publishers.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, many authors have reported the importance of income from the PLR to their daily lives. Whilst the individual payments may be modest, the regularity of the income can be a welcome buffer to the often-precarious nature of creative work.

Opportunities for change

The PLR has at its core two objects: to compensate authors and publishers for lost income resulting from loans to libraries, as well as to ‘to support the enrichment of Australian culture by encouraging Australian persons to create books and by encouraging publishers to publish books in Australia.’ The latter object is particularly interesting, as it suggests that the PLR is not intended to simply boost the existing market for books, but is instead designed to contribute to a broader social purpose.

The PLR is provided alongside the Educational Lending Right (‘ELR’) – an administrative scheme created for for much the same purpose, but directed specifically towards the context of education. In the financial year of 2018-2019, across both schemes, $21.8 million was provided over 16,400 individual lending right payments to authors, publishers, illustrators and other creators.

Presently, PLR payments are based on samples of library holdings, paid at a rate of $2.14 per copy held, with no cap on the amount that can go to a single author. The total amount paid varies year-to-year, a result of the payment rate multiplied by a sampled calculation of the number of copies held. This can be both an income boost both to authors who perform well on the market, as well as to those whose work is seen by libraries to hold sufficient value to keep it on their shelves.

However, there are significant questions to be raised about whether the PLR could be calibrated to better prioritise works of significant cultural value, and the method of ascertaining those works. Should it be tied to nominations for particular literary prizes? Such a change would require significant consideration of the potential risks, but might generate real possibilities for authors telling important Australian stories, but who are not presently well supported by the market.

If an author receives payments for the same work under both the PLR scheme and the ELR, is that result desirable? Given the right is raised through public revenue, should bestsellers still be able to receive an unlimited amount of public funds via the PLR, or should that money go to rewarding other authors?

Should it be extended to ebooks and audiobooks, and if so, how?

These are just a few of the questions I’ll be tackling – and they rely interface heavily with the results that Rebecca and her team have been collecting regarding e-lending practices, as well as with the question of how to ensure that policy around creative works reflects the distinction between rewards and incentives.

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