Save our books!
A GNARLY side-effect of Brexit threatens book publishing in the UK. The Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) has joined up with the Association of Authors' Agents, the Publishers Association and the Society of Authors for a Save our Books campaign, which aims to raise this issue with the Government and encourage them to protect copyright for the sake of UK authors.
So what’s the problem?
Authors - including illustrators and photographers - have the right to say who can copy our works, as soon as we create them.
But what happens when a work is copied into a physical copy - let's say a book - and this is sold? The person who buys it does not acquire any right to re-copy it. They own only the physical object. The authors whose work appears in it can take action against anyone who copies their work further. They can not take action against subsequent sales of the object, and neither can the publisher to which they licensed their rights. The copyright is said to be "exhausted" at the point where the book is sold. (An interesting voluntary initiative by some UK second-hand book merchants allows us to share in the proceeds.)
But: where does this apply? When the UK was a member of the EU it was a member of a single market in second-hand books. The rule remains in force: if a the work in a book is legally licensed to a publisher in the UK and one in Estonia - or any other state in the European Economic Area - the edition from Estonia (or wherever) can legally be sold new in the UK. Such sales are known as "parallel imports".
The UK government is consulting on possible changes to this rule, with a closing date of 31 August. One option on the table is to leave things as they are. The Freelance fears that this would be insufficiently "Brexity" for the current government.
One deeply Brexity option would be "national exhaustion". That would allow Customs officials, for example, to query imports of books from any other country. The consultation states, however, that the "government does not consider a national regime to be readily compatible with the Northern Ireland Protocol" to the UK's Withdrawal Agreement. It's not clear to the Freelance (or, as far as we know, anyone else) exactly why.
The third option that the UK government puts on the table is "international exhaustion". This would mean that any edition of any book legally published anywhere in the world could be imported into the UK. The point of doing this would be to undercut the price of the UK edition.
Authors face a royalty cull
The campaign notes that "for example, currently, books are sold in India at roughly a third of the price that they are in the UK market, so you can imagine how authors could see a rapid decline in income." India is in fact a very special case, with subtle agreements struck at the time of Independence. The Freelance has seen UK editions of books on sale there at those lower prices, alongside a slightly shonky legal Indian edition at a slightly lower price, alongside a deeply shonky and clearly pirated edition.
The decision to sell the book at a price matching purchasing power is an ethical one. Authors of books sold under such arrangements of course get less in royalties, which are traditionally paid as a percentage of cover price. For that edition to come back into the UK, reducing royalties received for sales here, is not ethical.
There are more complications, some arising from the fiction that there is a coherent entity called "intellectual property" comprising copyright, patents, trademarks and design rights. Some, for example, will promote "international exhaustion" of patent rights as promoting "cheaper drugs for the NHS" - when the consequences of that would be rather complicated, apart from serving the interests of those who want to weaken all "intellectual property". The draft letter to MPs simply calls on them to raise with government the potential harm to book authors.
- 3 August 2021 We clarified our working definition of "exhaustion".