BL: Update, including more useful comments from Owen Stephens

Comment scraped into Arcturus

The bulk of this message is valuable comments from Owen Stephens. My current plan is to draft a letter to the BL this evening. My conclusions are:

  • There is widespread unhappiness about the use of DRM by the BL
  • There is no compelling legal reason for it (though they may have got legal opinion and we may have to defer. After all, legal opinion took us into Iraq).


Just to clarify things. I want to help the BL. The BL is not evil, quite the reverse. I’m on the advisory board for UKPubMedCentral (a BL initiative) and I work closely with BL staff. Ben White sought my views on copyright when formulating BL’s views and we had considerable discussion. The BL is A GOOD THING.


However we seem to have got caught in a tar pit where the apparent legal restrictions are driving us further into the ooze. I want to find out why, as a Critical Friend (Brian Kelly’s phrase). Anyway here’s Owen.


Owen Stephens says:

May 11, 2010 at 9:32 am  (Edit)

Stephanie says “In UK law, the signature has to be obtained as a written signature, i.e. pen on paper”. This is not my understanding.

CILIP (the professional body for librarians and other information professionals) have for several years advised that electronic signatures in the form of a login to a library (or other) system can be accepted for the purposes of ILL. This advice was first published in 2002, and the text (available at was updated in 2007

However, despite this very clear (and sensible IMO) conclusion there is still some debate. I know of at least 5 Universities that accept e-signatures for ILL while I also know of 4 that have decided that only print signatures are legal. I am very strongly of the opinion that the CILIP advice is good, and that e-signatures for ILL are acceptable.

Owen Stephens says:

May 11, 2010 at 9:47 am  (Edit)

It seems to me that the arguments for DRM for document delivery are just exactly the same as those made for DRM on Music/Video/E-books and other digital content – that the ease with which you can redistribute the copies means you need extra protection on the digital content to essentially increase the cost of redistribution.

I do not support this argument! I’m just noting it.

Owen Stephens says:

May 11, 2010 at 10:07 am  (Edit)

On the theses front I was the Project Director for the EThOSNet project, which was responsible for the collaboration between the BL and the HE community to establish the EThOS service (electronic theses) at the BL.

EThOS works as an ‘opt-out’ system – the details are described in the accompanying toolkit but essentially the approach is to say that the risk of a copyright owner taking legal action is very low, and if the service is publicised properly (so authors have a good chance of being aware their thesis will go into the service) and a strong takedown policy so that theses can be removed from the collection if an author objects.

Despite this clear advice, I know individual institutions have decided that they will contact authors before they supply theses to the British Library service.

The EThOS toolkit also strongly recommends that institutions implement deposit agreements for theses, and that thesis authors sign these before depositing their thesis with the university – effectively making it part of the thesis submission process. Model wording for such agreements or licenses is also supplied in the toolkit.

When a requester gets a thesis via EThOS they agree to a set of terms and conditions which cover the legal side – note that this is done electronically not in writing!

What would drive the BL/HE community to move this to a DRM basis? The only real argument I’d be able to see here would be if the takedown or refusal to supply rate is extremely high and there is evidence that offering thesis authors a DRM option would reduce this – so essentially only if the authors of the theses are asking for DRM.

Of course, never say never, but I would be suprised and personally extremely disappointed if the EThOS service was to step back from the progress it has made in this area.

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One Response to BL: Update, including more useful comments from Owen Stephens

  1. Stephanie Taylor says:

    In response to Owen, in my experience there is a risk in using e-signatures, and many libraries are not prepared to take a risk. In my personal opinion, the risk is minimal, but it presents a real barrier as many librarians/libraries are very, very risk averse on the copyright aspects of interlending. The EThOS stance gave me some hope, as I thought such a high-profile project with heavy-weight partners would maybe inspire by example. This doesn’t, however, seem to be filtering down to general practice in quite the way I wished.
    Also, I may be unduly cynical here, but I think that the potential ease of inappropriate re-distribution of electronic material has been balanced out with a clearer audit trail for rights holders to follow – and they have tightened the requirements accordingly on digital content, holding a much tighter grip than was possible with paper copies.

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