UK Government Will Press Ahead With Giving Away Paid Content To Libraries

The UK government still aims to press ahead with plans that would allow Britain’s main libraries to harvest and make freely available material from online news publishers, including those with registration and pay walls.

On Monday, we reported the government had abandoned the plans because consultation submissions had failed to show the idea would not place extra burden on publishers, which will need to open their sites to new library indexing algorithms.

But the Department for Culture, Media & Sport’s initial announcement was ambiguous and wrongfooted some media outlets, including us. A department spokesperson now tells paidContent:UK the aim is unchanged. It will now seek detailed estimates for the cost to publishers, before actually moving ahead to implement the requirement.

Currently, the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003 grants the British Library, the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales, and the university libraries of Oxford, Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin, the right to receive and store one copy of each printed work available in the UK. Last September, the government proposed extending this provision to offline digital publications and online publications, whether free or paid. The libraries would run harvesting programmes to grab and store the content for their users.

Publishers including News International, Guardian Media Group, A&N Media and IPC Media have reacted angrily in submissions to the government, protesting about associated costs and labour. They propose libraries instead just use the Newspaper Licensing Agency’s existing eClips service, from which they take a slice of revenue. But their cost estimates for the government’s proposal were imprecise – most did not state exact figures, others who did ranged from “thousands of pounds per annum” (IPC Media) to “in excess of £100K per annum per publisher” (A&N Media).

On Monday, the Department for Culture, Media & Sport had said: “In the light of the … lack of evidence … to support the case that the regulations do not impose a disproportionate burden, we do not believe that it is viable to go forward with the regulations as currently drafted.”

But that does not mean the process has ended, so there is no victory for publishers. “We’re still committed to the regulations,” a department spokesperson tells paidcontent:UK. “We do mean content that is freely available but also that which has access restrictions which has been published in the UK. This could include paid-for content. We need to do more work. We’ll work with the legal deposit libraries and publishers to identify costs.” There is no fixed timetable on the exercise.

In addition to eClips, several publishers already operate their own pay-for digital news archives. James Murdoch last year attacked the British Library for wanting to provide its own, publicly-funded digital repository of printed news; he won concessions.

The practical considerations to publishers of the government’s plans include providing XML-type feeds to the libraries. Many of their work already ends up in numerous online news aggregator services via this method – something which may blunt free-to-web publishers’ protestations. But, because a growing number of news sites employs access or payment fences, the technical considerations may be more challenging, requiring publishers develop workarounds on libraries’ behalf.

To satisfy the government’s wish, the libraries and publishers will need to come to an agreement on how to cost-effectively let paid content out of the wall and in to the libraries.

Publishers may also protest that the regulation’s reference to material “published in the UK” could, theoretically, include anything hosted on the web.