The public lending right bill is up in the Seanad (Senate) this week – it got trapped in the election and is only resurfacing now.

Eoin Purcell has a good post dissecting it from a publisher’s point of view.

The history here is that the EU adopted a fairly daft provision in a copyright directive (wiping out the traditional position whereby lending of books in most types of library did not have copyright implications) and Ireland, sensibly, refused to apply this to public libraries. Alas, the Commission won the eventual legal battles (there were other refuseniks too), and we needed to write a bill.

I lobbied against this bill when the drafts were being discussed; I do support public money for authors and indeed even some measure of relating compensation to reading habits – but this is wrong, wrong and still wrong. The publishers of 100 years ago warned us that libraries would destroy the book industry. Lads (Eoin excluded), it hasn’t happened, and the fact that you were so wrong should encourage you to pipe down about it.

The fact that someone borrows a book from a public library (one of the most important parts of the public services and the education system, in my view) should not even be an issue for copyright law. No-one gains, and there are much better ways to support authors and small publishers. The loss is in the commodification of the library system and the creeping influence of copyright discourse in hitherto protected areas.

My work against the bill was very small and it was focused on the educational libraries. I’m relieved to see that the bill that emerged will not apply to educational libraries (who would have a stupidly time-consuming responsibility for dealing with data collection for the external agency responsible for PLR administration, and need more financial support and open access principles, not daft laws that will only slow them down), and of course, the big gain for the library communities is that the funding will come from the Arts budget and not the library budget (which comes via Environment & Local Government). Apparently, according to what was said in the Seanad, the education exemption will be put beyond any doubt at committee stage – and of course, the EU requirement is that the exemption be a genuine exemption (and not the cheeky Irish version of exempting all public libraries the first time out!).

The Irish Writers’ Union make a very strong case for supporting writers, and I don’t question that one bit. Many Senators speaking on the Bill made the point that the proposed scheme will benefit ‘smaller’ authors. That’s absolutely laudable and they are right to support it on that basis. And I know we have no choice in putting this legislation through. I still sort of regret it, though.

Finishing off with a paragraph from a letter I wrote for the Union of Students in Ireland (my then employer!) to the then-Minister drafting the Bill, Michael Ahern. For these reasons, and for the reasons outlined above, it is very important that the exemption for educational libraries be included in the new Bill.

We welcome the fact that you have indicated publicly that educational establishments will be exempted from the scope of the revised scheme, and would strongly urge you to ensure that this proposal is included in statute law, in order to protect the important role of such libraries. The functions of an academic library differ from that of other public libraries, and the justification
for PLR payments (i.e. compensation for lost sales) cannot be transposed to libraries in educational institutions, where the book stock is typically wide-ranging and of substantial benefit to staff and students within that institution. Furthermore, any attempt to require such libraries to retain and manage data for the purpose of PLR payments would be a further administrative burden that libraries do not need, especially given the requirements of compliance with copyright legislation and licence arrangements related to student and staff photocopying.

Get it right.