Internet law professor Michael Geist discusses how governments can start building libraries which preserve both printed and digital publications.
Libraries house our literary heritage
In 1537, French King Francis I launched an ambitious initiative to collect and preserve all documents published in France.
To achieve his objective, he enacted a law requiring all publishers to submit copies of their publications to the Crown. The practice of mandatory publication deposits, which later became known as legal deposit, caught on as many countries sought to preserve their heritage by establishing similar requirements.
The United Kingdom's legal deposit program requires publishers to deposit copies of publications with the British Library, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the University Library at Cambridge, the National Library of Scotland, the Library of Trinity College in Dublin, and the National Library of Wales.
The legislation was last amended in 2003 when it established pilot projects for the submission of electronic publications.
An October 2006 report on the pilot projects recommended that a new panel be established to address the technical issues associated with the deposit of electronic publications.
While the UK waits for the process to run its course, other countries are moving ahead with innovative approaches to the preservation of digital materials.
For example, Canada recently amended its legal deposit regulations to accommodate the emergence of online publications and to address the concerns raised by digital technologies that potentially impede access.
The changes should attract interest worldwide as they provide a model for preserving online publications and mark the first time a country has addressed the concerns associated with digital rights management and mandated preservation.
Canada introduced mandatory legal deposit in 1953, requiring publishers to provide copies of all published books to the National Library of Canada.
Over the past 54 years, the system has gradually expanded, adding serial publications in 1965, sound recordings in 1969, multi-media kits in 1978, microforms in 1988, CD-ROMs and video recordings in 1993, and electronic publications on all types of physical formats in 1995.
While enforcement of legal deposit is viewed as a last resort, the Canadian Criminal Code includes provisions for those publishers that fail to comply.
With little fanfare, the rules for legal deposit have gradually been adapted to the internet and digital technologies.
In 2004, the government granted the Library and Archives Canada, the successor the National Library, the right to sample web pages in an effort to preserve noteworthy Canadian websites. The internet sampling provision has been used to gather copies of political party websites as well as a handful of notable blogs.
As of 1 January this year, the rules have changed yet again as the Canadian government introduced new regulations to address online publications and DRM-encoded books.
Libraries are concerned about digital archives
The regulations broadly define publisher as any person "who makes a publication available in Canada that the person is authorized to reproduce or over which the person controls the content".
In order to avoid thousands of bloggers rushing to submit their blog postings to the LAC, the regulations do not require publishers to deposit blog postings, e-mail correspondence or other press releases (though the LAC has the right to request these documents or such content could be submitted voluntarily).
Instead, the rules focus on online material that is considered to be in "publication" form. The LAC notes that online publications usually have a distinct title, a specific author or authoring body, a specific date and are intended for public consumption. Examples include books, magazines, annual reports, research papers, and scholarly journals.
As part of the deposit process, publishers can choose between open access, which allows the public to view and download the publication through the internet, or restricted access, which limits public access to selected computer terminals at the LAC's main building in Ottawa. The LAC encourages publishers to select open access whenever possible.
The latest changes will require many online-only publishers to begin submitting their publications to the LAC. The rules disappointingly stop short of requiring all publishers to submit electronic versions of paper-based documents, however.
Such a requirement should be considered in the future to facilitate the creation of a national digital library.
The new rules also address mounting concern about the potential impact of digital locks (known as digital rights management or DRM) to deny future generations access to the publications in digital form.
DRM has been viewed as a threat by many within the library community, who fear that they and their patrons may literally be locked out of digital works as DRM systems are used to restrict otherwise legitimate access or become obsolete.
In response, Canada has implicitly acknowledged that the DRM-related concerns necessitate legal intervention.
The regulations now require publishers to decrypt encrypted data contained in a publication and to remove or disable systems designed to restrict or limit access to the publication before submitting it to the LAC.
Moreover, publishers are required to also provide the LAC with a copy of the software necessary to access the publication, the technical information necessary for access, and any "meta-data" associated with the electronic publication.
These regulations mark the first time that the Canadian government has stepped in to protect the public interest against the potential negative consequences of DRM.
Given these new legal deposit program provisions, thousands of libraries across Canada may soon demand similar protections for their electronic publication collections, which now account for as much as 25% of library budgets.
The policy goal of legal deposit - namely preservation of a country's published heritage for present and future generations - has remained largely unchanged over the past 470 years.
The latest developments help ensure that the program is as effective in the digital world as it was in the day of King Francis I.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law.