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Authors: Rights and Income

Volume 764: debated on Tuesday 14 July 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they plan to take to improve the rights and income of professional authors and writers.

My Lords, it is important that authors are properly remunerated for their work, which is why the United Kingdom provides strong copyright protection for authors as well as the public lending right. The Government have introduced a range of measures to improve the enforcement of copyright, including a dedicated online IP crime unit run by the City of London Police.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the recent ALCS research which finds, alongside a significant decline in the number of full-time writers, a 29% drop in the median income of professional authors in the last 10 years to a paltry £11,000 a year? What are the Government doing to protect the written word in this country and enable being a writer to be a viable career choice for young people?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Earl that writing is a vital part of our creative industries, and that is why we have the public lending right. We have a great library network to encourage people to read and to borrow. I think that we also have world-leading copyright laws.

My Lords, I declare that I have spent 40 years in book publishing. We should be proud of launching more titles per head of population in this country than anywhere else in the world. However, our overall revenues are falling. Half of our independent bookshops have closed, undercut by cheaper e-books and heavy discounting of physical books. “Every little helps”, as the Minister will know from her former life, but it does not always help everyone. Does she agree that we need to safeguard not only the revenues for writers but the whole book ecosystem on which their revenue depends?

I agree with much of what the noble Baroness says. She is a great role model from her work in the publishing industry, which was worth upwards of £9.9 billion of GVA in 2013. The creative industries make an enormous contribution to our economy. The digital world and the digital single market are of course changing everything; that is why we are always looking at how we should adapt our regulatory framework, both at national level and within the European Union.

My Lords, as the Minister knows, there have been many calls to change the application of the Unfair Contract Terms Act to intellectual property contracts over the past few years. Is it not now time to have a full review of how contracts for creators can be made fairer? How can we regard ourselves as the champions of creativity in the UK when the scales are so heavily weighted against creators?

My Lords, I do not agree that the scales are too heavily weighted against creators: there is a balance between the consumers who are going to buy works and the creators and writers. We have to have a good incentive system. The noble Lord knows a huge amount about the law of contract and I will follow up the point that he makes with him. We made a lot of reforms following the Hargreaves review. We have adjusted and changed matters appropriately, and I think that was a good result.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that for many years I have been a member of the ALCS—the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society—from which I receive minuscule sums about twice a year when people, in their wisdom, decide either to borrow or to photocopy from any of my published works. Many libraries have lost their paid staff and are staffed wholly by volunteers. Can the Minister say whether such libraries are no longer covered by the public lending right so that those authors whose works are photocopied or borrowed from them no longer receive any financial benefit?

My Lords, it is for the local authority to determine how best to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. Volunteer-supported libraries are considered for public lending right—the point that was at issue—where they are within a library authority’s statutory public library service.

My Lords, in the discussions that are going to take place on the BBC licence, will the Minister recognise the huge contribution the BBC makes to encouraging and supporting young authors? It has a whole list of series, such as “Book of the Week”, that depend on attracting young authors. Would the Government agree to bear this very much in mind in whatever decision they finally make about the licence issue?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. I am glad to say that, thanks to my noble friend Lord Fowler, we will be debating the BBC later today in this House.

My Lords, a very sunny atmosphere descended on your Lordships’ House as the Minister mentioned the PLR and public libraries, which cannot be right. Fully operating public libraries have been decimated in the last five years and, as the noble Lord said, there are now difficulties in interpreting how the PLR operates when volunteers are involved. Is it not time now, given the change in the way publishing operates, for the Government to institute a proper review of the PLR to make sure that our authors, who contribute so much to the creative industries, get proper remuneration from all borrowing that is done?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that libraries have declined in number, but the new modern libraries are amazing. We still have 3,142, which is an impressive network. I was in one of the modern libraries at Canada Water only last week. The Government are committed to looking at the options to extend PLR to remote e-learning. That was one of our manifesto commitments and I am sure we will be debating some of the related points that he has made in the coming weeks and months.

My Lords, in the light of what has transpired in these exchanges in relation to the public lending right, would my noble friend consider encouraging a prize for the public library responsible for raising the most public lending right in the course of a year?

My Lords, I like it when this noble House gives us innovative ideas, and I shall take that back to the Culture Minister, who I am sure will be very interested in the idea.