Digital discord

Digital discord

The Society of Authors’ report into e-book royalty rates on library e-book loans speaks to the discombobulating nature of digital.

One might think that the act of loaning an e-book to a library user via an intermediary such as OverDrive was much the same as loaning a print book, provided to the library via a library supplier. The library gets access to one digital version that it can loan to one user at a time. When the loan period is up the digital version is returned to the library/OverDrive server and can be loaned out again. So far, so much the same.

Except the SoA says not. Having participated in the Sieghart Review over library e-lending, the SoA feels it has spotted a flaw. It argues that the publisher is exercising a subsidiary right in passing the files to OverDrive to exploit, effectively granting a sub-licence that brings with it a different royalty rate, one usually closer to 50%. Random House and Bloomsbury disagree, arguing that a publisher’s relationship with OverDrive is much the same as its relationship with a physical library supplier.

The SoA is to be applauded for sticking up for its members, who it says should be feeling doubly miffed. They don’t receive an equivalent to PLR for loans of their e-books through libraries, and neither do they, the SoA argues, receive the correct remuneration from their publisher. The SoA will not be alone in having concerns. Peter Straus, president of the Association of Authors’ Agents, has said he will present the SoA report to agents.

As far as PLR is concerned there is widespread agreement it needs to be extended to “e”, and the government must act to make it so. However, on publisher contracts the approach risks losing the consensus Sieghart established. The SoA is asking agents to check contracts and “insist” on back payments—with interest. The Publishers Association says it risks a return to “megaphone diplomacy”. Even if you agree with the aims, there is enough grey in contract terminology to suggest a softer approach to negotiations. Publishers I’ve spoken to for background are deeply unhappy. It’s a massive distraction, one warned. If this is a sub-licence, it is not how that clause was originally envisaged.

Yet the SoA is right to throw a spotlight on how contract terms might become outmoded by changing business practices. We have enough trouble coming up with new words for new digital products, but we might also now need them for the boiler-plate.