Library licensing concerns: beyond legal details

In August, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) released a “Literature review on the use of licenses in the library context, and the limitations this creates to access to knowledge,” authored by Svetlana Yakovleva. This 40-page report is recommended reading for those interested in gaining an understanding of library licensing concerns that go beyond legal details. Many understand that a private license agreement with terms and conditions determined by the rights holder can sidestep the user rights elements of public copyright law, which for the United States is determined by Congress. But licensing cannot be escaped—this is the business model used by rights holders to make digital resources available. Today, licenses are omnipresent: we agree to licenses when we purchase an airline ticket, when we buy an appliance that includes software, when we buy digital music, when we subscribe to Pandora, when we sign up for cable television. Licensing is here to stay.

The IFLA report summarizes how licensing is further befuddled by economic concentration of the publishing industry, pricing models and the transaction costs of libraries having to manage and comply with multiple licenses. Not surprisingly, Yakovleva also notes the lack of literature on licensing content regarding public libraries, including a lack of evidence that “public libraries equally suffer from increasing financial burden of rising licensing fees.” (I know a few public librarians who would argue with that.)

For public libraries, understanding the problems with licensing seemed to hit home only in the last several years, when libraries began to acquire e-books. For academic libraries, discussions regarding “access over ownership” – i.e. licensing over copyright – began more than 30 years ago, fueled in part by journal price inflation that decimated acquisitions budgets. Academic libraries had to act quickly, learn from one another, develop and support new collection policies. Eventually, they formed the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), now a global coalition committed to open access, authors’ rights, open sharing of research data and open educational resources.

A similar trajectory seems less likely with public libraries, for several reasons:

  • While a growing percentage of the collections budget is spent on digital resources, public libraries still have tremendous print collections with circulation stats unheard of in academic libraries.
  • Public libraries collect resources from the trade book market, which is profoundly different from the academic market.
  • Public libraries focus less on collection development than on providing a broad array of user services to their local communities.

The differences between public and academic libraries are numerous, but most licensing issues centered on owning library resources are common. More research on public library funding, licensing and collection development may identify new commonalities and strategies to advance learning and equitable access to information and help better understand the publishing ecosystem.

About Carrie Russell

Carrie Russell is the Director of the Program on Public Access to Information in the Office for Information Technology Policy. Her portfolio includes copyright, international copyright, accessibility, e-books and other public policy issues. She has a MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a MA in media arts from the University of Arizona. She can be reached via e-mail at crussell@alawash.org.

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