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How can we make sure that authors are paid fairly in times of technological change? Luke Alcott discusses the steps that are being taken to protect their rights.

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We are a nation of readers and this is in no small part thanks to the contribution of authors. They contribute to culture in many ways: writing the literature we cherish, scripting the television series we enjoy, the plays we connect with, the films that are ingrained in popular culture and whatever else they put their mind to.

While it should be a given that authors earn a living from their creative efforts, this is often not the case. Research undertaken by Queen Mary University of London in 2013, called What are words worth now?, revealed evidence that typical incomes of professional authors fell by 29% from 2005 to £11,000 in 2013, far below the salary required to meet the minimum acceptable living standard in the UK.

If writing becomes an elitist profession, how damaging will that be to our culture?

Authors take a significant risk making a major personal investment in writing, dedicating a huge amount of time, usually with no guarantee of reward. If writing is viewed as a leisure pursuit, then we will see our bookstores and libraries (already dwindling in numbers) only stocking the works of those with the privilege to treat it as such. If writing becomes an elitist profession, how damaging will that be to our culture?

In the digital age, writers have an opportunity to access larger markets, with new platforms to connect with readers and a growing creative economy to contribute to. With technological change, it is important that these are not a means by which authors’ works are used without proper payment.

Public lending rights

One example of how technology gives us new avenues to enjoy and study written works, but how we must work to acknowledge remuneration, is the inclusion of e-books in the Public Lending Right scheme (PLR). PLR was established in 1979 after a campaign by authors to establish a means by which they could be paid for the use of their books in libraries.

It was designed to balance the social need for free public access to books with an author’s right to be remunerated for the use of their work. So authors receive a small payment per loan, paid by the DCMS, without detriment to the important work of public libraries.

Legislation brought about in the 2010 Digital Economy Act extended this to audiobooks and the on-site loans of e-books, but unfortunately it did not cover the remote transmission of e-book loans. Libraries are now lending many e-books remotely: 2.3 million loans were made in the past year alone, but authors are not remunerated for those loans.

ALCS, along with the Society of Authors, has campaigned for the inclusion of remote e-book loans in PLR and this is currently being considered within the Digital Economy Bill working its way through Parliament.

Decline in income

While these legislative issues may seem like idiosyncratic matters, it is important to consider where authors’ remuneration is challenged, especially as on average it has declined in recent years. This is due to a range of factors, including the value of advances declining and an increase in the use of buy-out contracts that lead to no further payment of royalties.

This decline has happened despite the fact that the wealth generated by the creative industries has continued to grow. UNESCO research in 2005 (International Flows of Selected Cultural Goods and Services, 1994–2003) suggests that the UK is the most successful exporter of cultural goods and services in the world.

There has been progress on this in the EU, but as we face negotiations to leave the EU we must have a clear solution for authors’ rights in the UK.

European progress

The EU draft directive for Copyright in the Digital Single Market, currently working its way through the legislative process, clearly sets out rights for authors to receive transparent communications about the use of their work and a right to renegotiate their contracts based on this information.

Too often writers are presented with ‘take it or leave it’ contracts that offer little scope for negotiation and demand full assignment of their rights, or unnecessarily broad licenses. They often find themselves in weak positions when negotiating with powerful commercial interests. Moreover, the UK is one of the few countries where moral rights and authorship can be waived entirely.

While writing will continue to be the beating heart of our culture, we must be careful to see that writers are not unfairly disadvantaged, or left behind by shifts in technology and a lack of protection of their rights. Creation is work and authors deserve fair compensation for it, and for this reason we will continue to campaign for their rights.

Luke Alcott is Public Affairs Assistant at ALCS.

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