The 'right' to read

On 23rd April as we in the UK celebrate World Book Night, the European Bureau of Libraries, Information & Document Associations (EBLIDA) and its UK off-shoot CILIP, are launching their “Right to E-Read” campaign, the central message of which will be that European citizens should be able to exercise a right to read electronically.

This is going to be one of the most successful book trade campaigns in history: because its central stated aim has already been achieved. As of now there is nothing stopping anyone in our country from taking it upon themselves to read words which have been electronically generated and displayed on a device created for that very purpose. You don’t need a permit, licence or approval; there are no official limits or guidelines. If you want to e-read you can just go ahead and do it, no questions asked—and what’s more, pretty much every title you can think of is there to be read and, in addition, if the titles are out of copyright they are possible to download for free.

About two hundred million pounds was spent by British consumers exercising their ability to e-read last year—and that’s just on the content, let alone the devices. So it is not as if the ability is going unused. Campaigning on this is a bit like organising a Chartist rally in favour of fully adult suffrage. Great slogan, but it’s somewhat passé.

To explain this apparent paradox one has to duck beneath the banner and look at the small print in the pamphlets. What EBLIDA/CILIP really want is not actually the right for people to read e-books, but the right for libraries to lend them. These are, of course, very different things indeed.

So why the false flag? Why isn’t the call to arms “the right to e-lend”? One reason is obvious. People can be enthused to campaign for something of direct interest to them; but are typically less energised about others’ interests. So EBLIDA has cunningly ventriloquised its demand into the mouths of the wider citizenry.

Secondly, there is nothing like a proposition of the form “a right to x” to get the political juices flowing. It immediately puts one in mind of the noble political battles of modern times like over the rights to freedom of expression and association. There is no better way of adding gravitas to a campaign than hitching it up to the Declaration of Human Rights and letting the stirring thoughts evoked by the vocabulary do the rest.

Shaky argument

Even when one pares the campaign back to its actual intent, the argument appears profoundly shaky. The stepping off point is a belief that authors’ and publishers’ exclusive rights should be held subservient to the desires of librarians.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to provide patrons with e-books, but to suggest this should happen without stopping to consider what impact it may have on the primary mode by which authors earn money (i.e. sales) is preposterously insouciant. In the UK the 2013 Sieghart report into e-lending recognised the real danger which could be unleashed on booksellers, authors and publishers if remote e-lending was introduced without consideration. This is why the review sensibly called for trials, pilots, and evidence gathering; and hence why the PA together with the Society of Chief Librarians, is engaged in the year-long pilot studies right now.

It needs to be demonstrated beyond peradventure that granting a European citizen the right to download an e-book from the comfort of their sofa does not occur at the expense of them exercising their right to buy one from an online (or come to that high street) retailer. It also has to be shown to a high degree of probability that, even if there were a PLR rate for remote e-lending, that authors would still benefit.

Like any actual human right, the freedom to do something doesn’t guarantee freedom from cost. The converse would be nice, but you can imagine the economic chaos: protestors would refuse to pay for large bed sheets, poles and pots of paint on the grounds that they were being acquired in order to exercise freedom of expression on a march. So even if the right to e-read were ever to be enshrined in statute it would still not become a free good.

There is no problem with having a policy debate on the remote lending of e-books. But let’s have an honest and accurate discussion on precisely that, and not some hifalutin slogan, designed to bypass the real issue at question.