The Authors Guild this week said its most recent survey of writing-related earnings reveals “a crisis of epic proportions” for American authors. According to the survey, “writing-related” incomes in the U.S. declined 42% since 2009, with the median author income now at a lowly $6,080 per year. And, it seems guild leaders think libraries bear at least a little responsibility.
Among a handful of policy recommendations released with the survey last week, guild leaders suggest that the U.S. should establish a federally funded Public Lending Right (PLR) for U.S. libraries. Such a right would pay authors a small fee for library lends. About a dozen or so countries currently support a public lending right, including Canada, and the U.K. The guild pushed for such a right in the 1980s without success, and it’s never really been seriously discussed since.
In a post on the guild survey over at Boing Boing, bestselling author Cory Doctorow suggests that a U.S. public lending right would be a terrible idea. “If we’re going to fund authorship through state grants (which I totally, absolutely support), let's break up the digital (and publishing!) monopolists, make them pay their fair share of taxes, and fund the NEA and other institutions,” he writes, adding that librarians are authors' “class allies.”
Doctorow makes a good point. Seeking more federal support for writers is a good idea, but tying those funds to library lends is not. A PLR in the U.S. would disproportionately reward popular and bestselling authors, while the guild’s own data suggests that it is literary writers who are struggling the most.
Given the state of our politics, extracting more money for a public lending right in the U.S. is almost certainly a non-starter, just as it was in the 1980s. Nevertheless, by highlighting library lends in connection with their report on declining author incomes, one gets the impression the Authors Guild is still invested in the kind of thinking that drew them into a decade of ill-conceived, unsuccessful litigation over Google’s scanning of out-of-print library books, a program that in fact fundamentally helps authors.
Are writers today are facing some unprecedented challenges? Yes, but let's be clear: libraries are not one of them. American libraries spend hundreds of millions of public dollars every year buying books, and millions more hosting authors, promoting books, literacy, and a reading culture in America.
Will 'Controlled Digital Lending' Spark the Next Big Copyright Lawsuit?
In addition to its headline-grabbing author survey, the Authors Guild this week began circulating a petition against Controlled Digital Lending (CDL)—a nascent service being pioneered by a handful of libraries and nonprofits, most prominently the Internet Archive’s Open Library.
CDL works like this: a library scans a copy of a legally acquired print book, removes that print copy from circulation, and then lends the PDF copy on a one copy/one user model like it would the print book.
Controlled Digital Lending has been on authors’ and publishers’ radar for some time, and the Association of American Publishers has been keeping a close eye on it as well.
“If [the] Internet Archive’s plan to expand Open Library broadly to all libraries are realized, it would eventually decimate the market for library e-books, put a massive dent in the e-book market in general, and usurp authors’ rights to bring their older works back into the market,” guild officials say.
The issue is heating up following a recent appeals court decision in a closely watched copyright case, Capitol Records vs. ReDigi. In that case, the courts held that ReDigi, a commercial service that enabled the resale of iTunes files, was unlawful largely because the program fundamentally relied on the creation of unathorized copies. And while ReDigi’s model is significantly different from how CDL operates, it’s clear that parts of the decision that shut ReDigi down raise serious questions for CDL proponents.
In a policy paper last month, Jonathan Band, a lawyer for the library community, conceded that libraries should “reevaluate the prospect” of Controlled Digital Lending programs. “To be sure, a library would engage in CDL for noncommercial educational purposes, in contrast to ReDigi’s clearly commercial motivation,” Band writes. “Nonetheless, libraries cannot ignore the long shadow cast by the decision.”
The Authors Guild survey on writing incomes has garnered a number of interesting takes: In a post on his Whatever blog, bestselling author John Scalzi thoughtfully parses the survey, and contrasts the guild’s data with the latest stats from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (which put the 2017 median income for its category of “writers and authors” at $61,820 annually). “The BLS would tell you it’s not a horrible time to be in the category of ‘writers and authors’…while the Author’s Guild is sending up red flags all over the place,” Scalzi notes. And don’t just read Scalzi’s take, read the comments, too, which are excellent. (Yes, I am seriously encouraging you to read the comments on an online article).
A piece in Forbes also questions the Guild’s suggestion that it’s harder than ever for authors these days, including comments from blogger and consultant Jane Friedman, who says she is “not convinced incomes are on the decline on the whole.”
The New York Times uses the survey to question whether it “pays” to be a writer these days. “Writing for magazines and newspapers was once a solid source of additional income for professional writers,” the Times writes, “but the decline in freelance journalism and pay has meant less opportunity for authors to write for pay.”
The library e-book market is setting up to be hot issue in 2019, and not just in America. Over at ReadersFirst, Michael Blackwell reports that Canadian libraries are taking the issue to the public, "calling upon citizens to call out publishers on library pricing and availability," and urging Canadian libraries "to post links on their websites and use social media to engage readers to demand better access for themselves through libraries."
From American Libraries, a status report on the American Library Association's finances, as the organization powers through a transformation. "After two years of challenging fiscal results for the Association, FY2018—which ended in August—was a year of progress. The American Library Association’s (ALA) total net assets increased by $7.3 million, and total membership grew by almost 3% from the prior fiscal year. Membership and Publishing department revenues either met or beat budget. And ALA’s Endowment Fund continued to grow by a healthy 9%, to $47 million."
If the above is true, then the residents of Marlbourough, MA, are about get happier: The MetroWest Daily News reports that an expanded and renovated library is coming to Marlborough after city councilors Monday approved a $23.7M bond to pay for the project.
And, more happiness, this time in London, as Smithsonian has a piece on how a successful crowdfunding campaign saved a major feminist library from closure.
While we were on break, you've probably read that for the first time in 20 years (when the copyright term was extended) a huge cache of works are now entering the public domain. Librarian Barbara Fister has an interesting take in her column in Inside Higher Ed, in which she cites Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, which estimates that “only 2% of works between 55 and 75 years old continue to retain commercial value. For the other 98% of works, no one benefits from continued copyright protection, while the entire public loses the ability to adapt, transform, preserve, digitize, republish, and otherwise make new and valuable uses of these forgotten works.”
Elsewhere in copyright news, The World Intellectual Property Review reports that the U.S. Supreme Court is set to weigh in on a case that could decide whether copyright registration is necessary to pursue an infringement claim.
And via Gary Price at InfoDocket, a journal article explores the behavior of Canadian higher education institutions following a controversial 2012 copyright reform that publishers say has decimated their permissions revenue.
Also via InfoDocket, IFLA offers a tribute to the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which, after 21 years, is ending it's global library program. "IFLA, on behalf of the entire global library field, would like to give thanks not only for its contributions to date, but for the immense impact it will continue to have into the future."
In Europe, Science offers the latest on Plan S, the controversial plan to require open access to scientific research, in which Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission's OA envoy and one of the architects of the plan, says publishers are trying to stall. "The big publishers told me: ‘Listen, we can only flip our journals [to OA] if this is signed by everyone. So first go on a trip around the world and come back in 20 years. Then we can talk again."
Meanwhile, in America, the UCLA Daily Bruin reports on the University of California's ongoing negotiation with Elsevier. "The contract cost the U.C. more than $10.5 million in 2018. This is a significant portion of the UC’s approximately $40 million yearly budget for journal subscriptions, according to an email statement from Ivy Anderson, the co-chair of the UC’s Publisher Negotiation Task Force."
And a note of good news to close this week, via the Philadelphia Inquirer. In what's being called a "miracle," an elementary school in Philadelphia is opening a school library. "It is a rarity in Philadelphia, where in a school district of 220 schools, just seven have certified librarians."