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Today Catalonia celebrates one of its most beloved and anticipated holidays: Sant Jordi, the festival of books, reading and roses. It is also the International Book Day, which transcends flags, religions and ideologies. Anyone who loves culture and wants to celebrate it can go out and participate in the events or approach the more than 180 stalls authorized to sell roses and books (in paper form, of course).
Book fairs and festivals such as Sant Jordi are among the main events promoted by governments to foster culture and access to books, in compliance, among others, with Law 10/2007, of June 22, on reading, books and libraries (the “Book Act”). This Act tasks the central government, in cooperation with autonomous regions, to promote reading and the expansion of the book industry, seeking a fair balance between the twofold dimension of books—both cultural and consumer products. This is a more than legitimate objective in our country since, in spite of many efforts, statistics show that still 30% of our population does not read.
The Book Act provides a broad definition of books that includes electronic books: “electronic books and books published or disseminated through the internet or any other means that may appear in the future (…).” However, it does not include any specific provision regarding e-books or reading devices, nor does it provide anything to mitigate the difficulties this industry faces on days as Sant Jordi or the Book Fair when, for obvious reasons, people end up choosing printed books as gifts (even if it may not be the most convenient option in some cases).
The truth is that e-books (or new formats such as audiobooks) can play a relevant role in overcoming barriers to access culture. These alternative formats offer greater convenience and quick access and, in many cases, at more affordable prices. Audiobooks also provide an alternative to those more reluctant to read and a solution for the visually impaired or those who simply wish to rest their eyes after a long day in front of a computer screen. Furthermore, we should not underestimate their convenience in the current COVID-19 situation, where health and sanitary measures recommend avoiding the traditional “physical browsing” of the different copies of books at the sales stands.
Despite the advantages of e-books, a survey conducted by Statista in 2019 shows that only 20.2% of Spaniards engage in reading-related activities in digital format, compared to 61.9% who choose to do so in paper format. Unsurprisingly, the current situation has led to modest growth in the e-book industry. A study on reading and purchasing habits conducted by Conecta in 2020 for the Spanish Association of Publishers Guilds (FGEE) shows an increasing trend: 30.3% of the population over 14 reported having read digital books at least once a quarter during the lockdown (in 2019 the percentage was 29.1%).
However, moderate growth is not the main drawback facing the e-book industry. The above study shows that this sector continues to be severely affected by piracy and illegal downloads. Even if the percentage of population paying for e-books has increased from 35% to 39.8%, the vast majority of downloads are free and unauthorized (no less than 55%). This situation continues to drag the industry down, in spite of several initiatives to denounce these activities. A good example is the digital complaints channel of the Spanish Reproduction Rights Center (CEDRO), which in 2020 blocked 4,626 unauthorized links to digital content (mostly books).
Indeed, piracy is an underlying concern in the electronic book industry. Due to its particularity, it also extends to the acts of making available second-hand e-books, as established in 2019 by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in the Tom Kabinet case (C-263/18 – Nederlands Uitgeversverbond and Groep Algemene Uitgevers) we discuss here. In that case, the CJEU made it clear that dematerialized digital copies, unlike printed books, do not deteriorate with use. Therefore, any subsequent communication must be considered as “made available to the public” (thus entitling rightholders to obtain adequate remuneration) instead of an act of distribution subject to exhaustion.
In view of the above, last February, the Ministry of Culture and Sports signed an agreement with CEDRO to protect intellectual property and literary creation, including actions to raise awareness about the importance of copyright. This agreement falls within the scope of the future Reading Promotion Plan (2021-2024), which is expected to be approved before the summer.
The e-book industry has traditionally faced another difficulty. It was not until last year (April 23, 2020) that a drastic reduction in the tax rate came into force following the approval of Royal Decree-Law 15/2020, of April 21, adopting additional emergency measures to support the economy and employment. Until then, e-books were subject to 18% VAT as they were classified by EU regulations as “digital services.” The reform reduced this rate to 4%, bringing it in line with paper books to facilitate access to digital books, newspapers and magazines during the lockdown.
In short, on such exciting days as today, although we all like to preserve traditions, we should reflect on the convenience of making space for the e-book industry and, why not, for audiobooks. Perhaps this year, for the first time, we can also find stalls selling reading devices or actions aimed at promoting the formats of the digital era. We will see.
Author: Claudia Morgado
This post is also available in: Español