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The impact of electronic publishing on library services and resources in the UK

3.9.2 Ownership of purchased products.

The distinction between a service and a good may be unclear with respect to some electronic materials, such as, for instance, an online database; is it used as a service, or is the search product a good? And does it matter? In this particular case, the distinction is probably unimportant, but the question serves to illustrate the point that it is not always clear, when spending money on electronic publications, what exactly is being bought. In the case of some products, especially CD-ROMs sold on a subscription basis, ownership of the product is retained by the producer, which means that in principle, when a subscription is discontinued, the CDs previously acquired should be returned to the vendor, unlike printed versions of the same material, which are retained by the purchasers. What is purchased, in this context, is effectively a license to use the product, subject to certain conditions which may include continued subscription.

The return of discs is a practice which is not in the interest of libraries wishing to discontinue a subscription, for they lose all that they have received, as well as future updates. It is as though a librarian dropping his subscription to Chemical Abstracts were required to return the many years' run held by his library to the American Chemical Society.

In some particular cases, principally those in which the information content of an electronic publication is updated from time to time, it may be reasonable to require return of the products on lapse of subscription, in order to prevent use of out-of-date and therefore erroneous information. It is for this reason that British Telecom requires return of the directory disc, PhoneDisc, which it issues.

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