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Licences are valuable tools

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Alicia Wise, chief executive of the UK's Publishers Licensing Society (PLS) and also on secondment to the Publishers Association, explains why licences are particularly valuable now that so much content is digital

What is the role of PLS in the industry?

We are involved in collective licensing and form a single point of contact for publishers across the industry. We were set up in the 1980s to deal with photocopying, and we now represent more than 2,200 UK publishers.

The reasons for licences are sometimes opaque to users but, with the advent of photocopiers and more recently digital versions of content, it has become much easier to make copies of published material.

In 2008 we launched our first digital licences. They are like the photocopy licences in that they are a one-stop shop for licences. In the photocopy world, however, it was an opt-out licence but in the digital world it is an opt-in licence. We contact all the publishers and invite them to be represented by this. The reason that it is opt-in rather than opt-out is that publishers offer their own digital licences – and we want to work with them, rather than compete. Some larger publishers do their own licensing while smaller publishers might do licences through platforms or aggregators.

How do users find out about licences?

Copyright is a wonderful enabling tool but it’s got bad press. It’s far too complicated and that’s a problem because people think it’s a bad thing. It’s very difficult for researchers in libraries to know what the licence conditions of an article are. They often ask the librarians but it is difficult for them too because the licence conditions differ for each publisher. Librarians are very professional so they tend to err on the side of caution but publishers would like users to use all the rights that they acquire.

The ever-increasing number of licences means that it is becoming harder to manage information about them. Now that more content is delivered online the licence information needs to be accessed with the content.

Two groups, NISO and EDItEUR, have been working with libraries and publishers to improve the communication of licence terms. They have developed a standard called ONIX for Publications Licenses (ONIX-PL), which helps to communicate the licence conditions for any piece of content.

Library system vendors are working to implement the standard in libraries later this year or early next year. Each library system vendor will implement it slightly differently. The standard can be applied to e-books, websites, databases as well as journals and it can work with collections of titles.

How do licensing bodies work together?

PLS and its sister body the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) are UK-based but there is network of bodies across the world that work together. Copyright is a territorial right. This means that there are different laws and practices in different countries. That is why it has worked best to develop a network of country-specific bodies. That may change with the Google Book Search settlement, however. The Books Rights Registry, which will collect and disburse revenue from Google Book Search to authors, publishers and other rights holders, is initially for the USA but it could grow into an international resource or be mirrored across Europe.

How is the widespread availability of digital content changing how rights are handled?

In the printed world there is a copyright notice along with the publisher information at the front of a book or journal. However, over time the copyright owner might change. A lot of what we do at PLS is finding the owners for historical titles. In the digital world it is possible to change the rights information with the content. We’re not working with Project Transfer [a project to help facilitate smooth handover of journals between publishers] but we absolutely support it. It’s great work and makes our job easier.

The Creative Commons License is a really interesting licence, not so much because it’s about open access. What is really interesting is that they’ve developed icons that make it easy for authors and readers to know the licence conditions and they’ve enabled the licence conditions to be interpreted automatically by crawlers. ACAP is a leading initiative in this space too and ACAP and ONIX are interoperable [see page 20].

Another interesting project is ARROW. This is creating rights systems to help libraries that have digitised their collections find out the rights relating to their works – and which content is orphaned so they don’t need to chase the copyright owners.

Publishers are keen to make sure that there are licences in place for their work, especially given the increase in piracy. There is a real increase in peer-to-peer file sharing, such as with e-books, and that could really undermine publishers’ material. There is also piracy that could better be described as parasiting, where companies make money off the back off other people’s work. For example, some websites allow content to be added by authors but do not check that it is the authors who have uploaded the content and that it is content that they are allowed to upload. This means that publishers have to spend time searching such sites and then asking for things to be taken down from the site.

Interview by Siân Harris