In the debates around controlled digital lending (“CDL”), much has been said about whether and how CDL affects author incomes. Recently, the Internet Archive requested 10 years of sales data during the discovery phase of its ongoing lawsuit with several large publishers, seeking to support its argument that its digitization projects did not negatively impact book sales. As an authors’ group that represents the interests of authors who care deeply about their works reaching broad audiences, Authors Alliance is a unique voice in the conversation around the impact of different types of library lending on authors’ livelihoods. In today’s post, we will discuss the intersections between author income, traditional library lending, and CDL.
How Do Authors Make Money from Library Sales?
When an author signs a publication contract for her work, she is agreeing to be compensated by her publisher pursuant to the terms in the contract. The two main ways authors are paid are through an “advance against royalties”—an upfront payment or payments made when the contract is signed, the manuscript is delivered, and/or when the book is published—and through royalty payments. Once any advance paid to the author has “earned out” such that author royalties from sales exceed the advance paid to the author, the publisher pays the author a percentage of each sale. When a consumer purchases a book, the author then will receive a percentage of the sale based on the royalty rate set in her publication contract.
Like members of the public, libraries purchase books, and when they do so, authors are entitled to royalties on those sales. Importantly, libraries have purchased and lent books to patrons since time immemorial. In fact, in the mid-20th century, public libraries were the most reliable market for new books. But changes in the publishing ecosystem and widespread reductions in library budgets over time have led to a reversal of this pattern—in 2015, public libraries were responsible for just over 1% of book sales.
Once a library owns a physical book, the library is permitted to lend it out as many times as it likes, based both on public policy and what is known as the “first sale doctrine.” First sale doctrine is based on a provision within U.S. copyright law that allows the owner of a physical copy of a copyrighted work, like a book or DVD, to sell, lend, or otherwise dispose of that copy however she wishes, provided that it does not infringe any of the copyright holder’s exclusive rights. For example, the owner of a copy of a book can lend it out to her friend, lend it out to another friend after the first friend has returned it, and then give it away to a third friend. On the other hand, the owner of a copy of a book cannot make multiple copies to share with her friends simultaneously without infringing on the copyright holder’s exclusive rights of reproduction and distribution. Because of public policy favoring libraries’ roles in the knowledge ecosystem and the first sale doctrine, libraries can lend out copies of books they have purchased as many times as they are able.
How Does Traditional Library Lending Impact Author Income?
As discussed above, library lending results in author income when the libraries buy books in the first instance. But the effect of library lending on consumer book sales, has, perhaps surprisingly, not been the subject of extensive research—as of 2019, there had never been a major study on the impact of library lending on the publishing industry as a whole, but there has long been evidence that library patrons also purchase books, and may even do so more frequently than non-library patrons. In a 2020 survey, nearly a third of consumer respondents reported purchasing a book that they first found in a library, a number that was even higher for avid readers.
Library advocates have long championed the ability of libraries to bring attention to authors and their works, which often results in increased income for those authors. Many libraries host author events in which an author’s books are available for sale to attendees, and these events often result in more demand for that author’s books at the library, leading the library itself to purchase more copies, resulting in more author income. Libraries are also known to increase discoverability of books, both through author events and by exposing patrons to new books and new authors in other ways. In the 2020 survey mentioned above, 30% of respondents reported that, when a book they wanted to read was unavailable at their local library, they purchased the book, either online or at a local bookstore.
How Does Controlled Digital Lending Impact Author Income?
Controlled digital lending is a lending model many libraries across the country have implemented in recent years to increase access to works in their collections. CDL involves a library scanning a physical book it has purchased and is already in its collection, and then lending out this scanned copy in lieu of the physical book. Under the CDL model, libraries are not permitted to lend out more digital copies than they have physical copies at one time. This so-called “owned to loaned ratio” ensures that CDL stays within the bounds of what the first sale doctrine permits: each copy may be loaned out to only one patron at a time. Because libraries have already purchased the physical copies, authors have already received any royalty income they were entitled to from the sales.
Similar to interlibrary loans, CDL makes works available to readers who cannot access the physical spaces where the books are held. In this way, CDL operates as an analogue to traditional print lending: rather than a library patron having to physically travel to a library to check out the book they want to read, they can receive a digital copy loan instead, which comes with the same controls as print lending—limited check out times and a maximum number of loans at one time based on the number of copies the library has purchased. CDL seeks to replicate digitally what is difficult to achieve with physical books: sending a book to a reader who is interested in reading it, wherever she may be located, within the confines of limited library budgets. Many have also argued that CDL also constitutes a fair use, further bolstering the legal basis for the practice.
The role of CDL in the library ecosystem has taken on a new prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic, when libraries have reduced hours or shuttered physical spaces altogether. Over the past year and a half, CDL has served as one important way to bridge the gap and ensure readers can still access library books despite these limitations. And importantly, due to the requirement that a library purchase a print book in the first place and the limitations put in place to ensure that each loan is discrete and temporary, CDL does not hurt author incomes. In fact, due to libraries’ roles in increasing the discoverability of books, particularly when they are digitized, CDL may even result in more sales for authors whose books have been made available in this way.
Authors Alliance has long supported CDL as a way to help books reach readers. Many individual authors also support CDL, as it helps works reach readers who otherwise could not access them, bringing reputational benefits and the potential to increase book sales to consumers.