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JILT 1996 (1) - Chris Rusbridge

eLib and the Law

Chris Rusbridge

JILT is produced by a project which is part of the UK Higher Education Electronic Libraries Programme (eLib). Part of the implementation of the Follett report, eLib is funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee to help libraries cope with some of the increasing pressures on them through the use of computing and networking technology.

Legal issues keep bubbling up throughout eLib: problems with signing inter-library loan requests digitally in the Document Delivery programme area; many issues of copyright in the 11 Electronic Journals projects: obvious difficulties in negotiating deals with publishers for On Demand Publishing: copyright problems again in our Digitisation projects, and so on. We have just agreed to fund Dr Bill Tuck to carry out a study on technologies to support copyright management, in the Supporting Studies Programme Area, for instance.

If you are interested, you can find more details on the eLib programme at

Meanwhile, it seems to me that most of what is useful on the Internet rests on extremely shaky legal foundations. Given that all Web pages are copyright to someone, it seems likely that every time one is loaded for viewing, copyright is infringed, perhaps several times. The theory seems to be that by putting up the Web page in the first place, the author creates an implied licence for it to be copied. But what are the details of that licence? To put it another way, what can you reasonably do with someone's Web page? How can you the viewer know what conditions the author wishes to impose?

To illustrate some of the problems, here's a copyright notice from the Web page of a well known publisher:

All rights reserved. No part of this service may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission of the publisher.

This notice says we cannot even load the Web page (transmit part of the service by electronic means) without prior written permission. This seems quite ludicrous: clearly we have a long way to go before we fully understand the implications of copyright on the Internet.

Looking further into the future, I worry rather a lot about the library of the mid twenty-first century. Instead of thousands of books, perhaps it will contain millions of electronic objects, with access governed by hundreds of thousands of licence agreements. How will we manage to observe all the (undoubtedly different) terms and conditions? What happens when a licence expires: do all the electronic objects that depend on it cease to be available? What does that mean for scholarship in the distant future? How do we preserve those electronic objects for the very distant future, and what powers are needed to enable us to do that? How do we run a library if we have to pay per use for everything? What happens to our democratic freedoms if our reading habits can be discovered from an analysis of access transactions?

I know this journal is not just about copyright, but I hope it will help us to understand these and many other legal issues relating to technology.

I wish it very well.

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