NLW Digitisation Proposals
The National Library’s Digits – Books Next?
(A shorter version of this article appears in the March 2008 number of New Welsh Review)
Imagine Dr Lowri Zapp of the University of Cwmscwt. It’s 2009. She’s planning two modules for her undergraduates: Recent Poetry in Wales in English and Recent Short Fiction in Wales in English. At first she works out a reading list of books for each of these, but then discovers the excellent Welsh Journals Online section of the National Library of Wales website. She crosses out the reading list and taps the names of the authors she wants into this searchable, printable, free resource. She finds that she can customise enough material for her two courses. She copies the poems and stories into her course guidebook and emails the lot to her students or places the details on the university’s intranet. Nobody buys or borrows a book. No one photocopies a thing. Meanwhile, the publishers and authors lose out on sales, royalties, Public Lending Right payments for library borrowing and Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society payments for photocopies from books and journals, because they aren’t paid a bean for this. For some book titles, modest sales for academic courses can mean the difference between staying in and going out of print.
Since Peter Finch wrote to Academi members in August last year expressing in very moderate and measured terms some doubts about the National Library of Wales’s Welsh Journals Online plan, I’ve grown more firmly convinced that the scheme, while it may have something to commend it, is deeply flawed. It may be that the Library’s signal failure to consult creative writers or organisations representing them has led to the following flaws:
- First, so far there is no clear, honourable and watertight protocol for securing permissions to digitise authors’ work. Before the scheme can go live, it needs such a system for making sure that it only includes copyright material for which all permissions have been obtained in writing and for which the NLW, as ‘spearhead’ of the scheme and sole receiver of funding should take all responsibility. So far this does not exist. NLW has asked the magazines to do this work for it, and has fudged the question of whether material can be digitised on the basis of the failure to get a response from or to locate rights holders. Both magazines and NLW should also remember that the author may not be the only rights holder; in cases where a magazine piece has gone on to be collected in a book, the book publisher may hold publication and subsidiary rights and should also be consulted/paid. Magazines should be aware that if they agree to take responsibility for
securing permissions, they may end up with the liability if they make an error.
Some have supposed that an opt-in only system for permissions would be unworkable. If so then that’s not a reason for abandoning that system, but rather for abandoning the scheme so far as copyright material is concerned. The thing about a principle is that you don’t abandon it merely because it becomes inconvenient. But in fact I believe an opt-in system could work. Why shouldn’t it? It would avoid any legal or financial dangers regarding rights both for the magazines and the Library.
- Second, in spite of the fact that the planners applied for very large funding for a scheme which depended on using copyright material, they did not even attempt to include payment for this material in their budget. Writers should be paid for the use of their work. The principle is long established through payments for first serial rights for magazine material, royalty payments on books, PLR payments on library borrowings, and ALCS payments for photocopying from books and journals. Some have said that there’s just no money for this. That is not an argument for us to give our work away, but for the scheme not to include copyright material. The reason there’s no funding is that the planners never factored it in to their plans. NLW’s mantra that being involved in such payments is beyond their remit is just a cop-out. They should address this, and maybe they still can.
The huge majority of authors in my experience agree with these arguments. The scale of the protest, with over a hundred authors publicly refusing to take part and many others doing so privately as well as major magazines holding back, makes it unignorable.
But a very few authors have said that they don’t mind their magazine pieces being digitised but would refuse if it came to books. This may seem reasonable if only a few magazine pieces are affected, but I’d ask them to consider the following. Poets, short story writers and essayists publish individual pieces piecemeal in magazines, then after some years gather that material together for book publication. For many authors, making magazine work available like this would be to make books’-worth of material available. (One writer told me he has about 80,000 words of work, as yet unpublished in book-form, in just one magazine that could be included in this scheme.) Some form of payment for this seems to me essential and natural justice. I ask all writers in a spirit of solidarity and for the sake of the future of professional authorship, to join the protest. Publishers should note that such digital resources could hit book publishing too, as the opening scenario suggests. How would Faber or Seren feel about publishing your collection if all the poems were already on the net for free for anyone who tapped your name in? How would the presence of the work on the net affect your contract with the publisher, which would normally include clauses about subsidiary and digital rights?
And it is a mistake to suppose that digitisation will stop at magazines. In a statement presented to the Culture, Welsh Language and Sports Committee of the Assembly in December 2005, National Librarian Andrew Green wrote: “In the wake of announcements by Google, Yahoo and Microsoft of large-scale digitisation of print collections, we are developing an ambitious proposal, ‘The Theatre of Memory’, to give networked access to an electronic library of Welsh books and newspapers”. In their Remit Letter to the then Culture Minister Alun Pugh at the Welsh Assembly Government in March 2007, the NLW listed on its ‘operational’ agenda for 07-08 “beginning to implement the ‘Modern Welsh Journals’ project, and promoting the ‘Theatre of Memory’ mass digitisation project”.
“Welsh books”. “Mass digitisation”. This ‘Theatre of Memory’ project is predicated on £1.1 million from WAG in 2005 for purchase of a then new computer system, and dependent on massive further funding beyond the large sums already received for Welsh Journals Online from JISC and perhaps WAG for the digitisation itself. What plans do they have to digitise copyright material? What budgeting is being built in to pay the people whose intellectual property NLW plan to give away? Has the cost of paying for copyright material been built into applications for funding? Will they do a bit more than they have so far in the way of consulting us authors and other rights holders? And it is alarming that our august and formerly wonderful National Library should cite Google among others as a role-model in all this. Globally there’s currently a digital smash and grab of intellectual property by big organisations. Does NLW really want to be part of that?
The National Library of Wales, a great institution of hitherto unquestionable integrity, had an opportunity here to demonstrate to the world how a small civilised country treats its authors fairly. So far they’ve failed, but perhaps there’s still time.
The truth is that digitisation of libraries when it comes to copyright material has to be thought through and paid for properly. Digitisation is a huge and powerful tool and it’s going to happen in some form or other, but we need to work out who does it, how it’s controlled, and how we pay for it. It’s not quite like book-borrowing and it’s not quite like photocopying, though it could replace both. It is in fact a form of publishing. If NLW want to set up as publishers on this scale, they should take on the responsibilities of publishers and offer their authors contracts and payment. Dr Lowri Zapp may then be able to exploit the ‘Theatre of Memory’ without exploiting authors.