Taissumanni, Feb. 17

Thank you, Peter Freuchen


The world-famous writer and Arctic traveller Peter Freuchen is responsible for the idea that lending libraries should pay authors for use of their work. (HARPER COLLECTION)

The world-famous writer and Arctic traveller Peter Freuchen is responsible for the idea that lending libraries should pay authors for use of their work. (HARPER COLLECTION)

Sometime this spring a small cheque will arrive in my mailbox.

It will come from the Public Lending Right Program of the Canada Council for the Arts. It will be based on a sampling from certain libraries of the number of my published copyrighted titles that were held by Canadian libraries during the past year.

Canada is one of a number of countries that have a public lending right program. It has had it since only 1986.

And Canadian authors, like myself, who register their books with the program, have Arctic explorer Peter Freuchen to thank for those small cheques we receive.

Freuchen spent many years living among the Inuit of isolated northern Greenland in the early years of the 1900s. He helped to found the Thule trading station with his great friend, Knud Rasmussen, and married Navarana, a young woman of the tribe.

She died in 1919 before the beginning of Freuchen’s next great adventure, his participation as geographer on the Fifth Thule Expedition to northern Canada. He froze his foot on that expedition, and had it amputated by a Hudson’s Bay Company ship’s doctor.

Returning to Denmark after the expedition, he found the market for amputee Arctic explorers to be rather thin and turned his attention to writing about his experiences among the Inuit.

He had a flair for writing—and some say for exaggerating—about some of the experiences he had and the dangers he survived. He would eventually become world famous for his writings.

But in 1929 he was known only to the limited readership of Denmark, his works available only in Danish. In that year, he published his fourth book, Nordkaper, in Danish.

The idea that a writer should be compensated when a library lent out his works was not a new one; it had been percolating in the Danish literary world for a decade.

But Peter Freuchen was the first to make a tangible effort to put some flesh on the bare bones of that idea. He and his publisher, Steen Hasselbach, took the unusual step of publishing a notice in the book’s preliminary matter, a notice prohibiting the loan of the book without permission of the author.

The notice went on to suggest that permission would be granted if the lending library paid a fee for each loan, or—a completely impractical suggestion—if the library paid double the purchase price for its copy of the book.

A Danish subscription library—a library financed by private funds, often by memberships—took Freuchen up on this challenge, and the matter ended up in court in a case known as the Nordkaper case.

The court found in favour of Freuchen, reasoning that “the plaintiff had a legitimate interest in preventing his book from being lent and was entitled to impose that restriction.”

At that point, Danish authors would seem to have been in the driver’s seat, but they did not pursue their advantage aggressively, many feeling that they already received grants from the government, and that this might look like double-dipping. Negotiations proceeded at a snail’s pace.

In 1941, the Danish government announced that it intended to fund a scheme to compensate authors for two purposes: to improve their financial positions, and to provide reasonable compensation for the lending of their works by libraries.

But then World War Two intervened and Denmark was occupied by Germany. The Danish legislation was finally enacted in 1946, after the end of the war.

Other Scandinavian countries followed suit. Denmark and Norway saw their programs as a means of supporting their authors and “re-establishing their national cultures after the war.”

Freuchen had prevailed. The irony is that by the end of the war, he was no longer just a Danish author, but one internationally known. Nordkaper had been translated into English and published in 1932 as The Sea Tyrant. Many more English titles followed.

Following the war, Freuchen relocated to the United States, where he spent the last decade of his life. He died of a heart attack in Alaska in 1957. A further irony is that the United States has never adopted a public lending right program.

Peter Freuchen’s books will never be rare. That’s because they sold so well.

They were so popular that copies on the aftermarket have never become scarce. A search on Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) shows over 1,000 copies of various titles for sale.

To return to the public lending right program: Different countries have different models. Canada’s is based on library holdings, not loans.

In other countries, the programs are based on actual circulation. Over 17,000 Canadian authors are registered with the program.

No one will ever get rich by their participation; the average payment in the last year reported was $563. Nunavut has only two authors registered, but only one received a payment in the last report.

Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for over 50 years. He is the author of “Minik, the New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

Share This Story

(0) Comments