In 33 countries, not including the U.S., there is a program in place called the Public Lending Right (or PLR). As the PLR website states, “Public Lending Right is the right of authors and other rights holders to receive payment for the free public use of their works in libraries.”
In other words, when someone checks a book out of the library, a certain amount is eventually paid to the author of that book. How much depends on how each country is set up. Some are based on whether the book is in the library’s collection and others are on a per-usage basis. For example, in the UK and Ireland (in 2017), the author received about 10 cents (U.S.) per use, with a max of $8,500 (U.S.) per year.
To further confuse you, in some countries like Canada, Australia, and the UK, the copyright holder must be a citizen of that country to participate because the money is paid by the government out of tax revenue. But for others, the payment is tied to the copyright holder regardless of the country of origin (Germany and the Netherlands operate this way.) We have a number of clients who receive payment from the Netherlands each year for their books that have been translated into Dutch and are in a library system.
I have simplified the above considerably. It is far more complex, but this is the gist of the program. If you want more details, read this article from the World Intellectual Property Organization.
Why Not the United States?
PLR has never been a part of the U.S. From 1979 to 1989 the Authors Guild attempted to get federal legislation passed to establish it in America. Two bills in Congress died in committee.
Recently, the Authors Guild announced they are going to try again. You can read the letter from their President James Gleick here. It will be quite an uphill battle since the money to pay authors has to come from somewhere. I highly recommend that you read the letter.
In 2016 the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) made a statement regarding PLR (article found here) citing the reasonable desire to keep information found in libraries free. If additional costs for lending are imposed, they are afraid that federal, state, and local budgets would not increase accordingly and further squeeze their ability to serve the public.
How Much Money Are We Talking About?
Each country using PLR has set a cap on the amount a particular author can receive. That way the top bestsellers don’t reap a disproportionate amount. In 2017 in the UK, only 205 author maxed out their potential revenue.
If one were to look at the music service Spotify as an example of artists being paid for the use of their music, you can get an idea of what PLR could look like. Of course the difference between PLR and Spotify is one being a government program supported by taxes and the other a business that charges its users a monthly fee for unlimited commercial free access to their library of songs. But Spotify is an example of “pay-for-play” with the money coming from the company who holds the intellectual property in a “library.” While not a perfect example at least we can look at it for a moment.
Spotify pays around $0.005 per song streamed on its service. That is 1/2 of a penny. If a song is listened to 10,000 times, the record label receives $50 and the artist royalty is calculated on that net receipt. An indie artist, cellist Zoë Keating, recently stated that in 2018 she made $12,231 from Spotify, derived from 2,252,293 streamed songs. This is an artist with 52,000 Facebook followers and 989,000 Twitter followers. (Read the report of her income of an independent artist here.)
For authors and PLR, how much are we talking about? Probably not much. But, as authors will state, “every little bit helps!”
It will be interesting to follow the efforts of the Authors Guild and PLR. It would be nice if authors received something extra for their books being checked out and read by readers. The author and publisher are already paid once when the library buys the book, but PLR would provide further compensation for each time that book is used. However, if the library must come up with the royalty money it must be underwritten by the government via their tax revenue.