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

3.9 Legal issues

3.9.1 General principles

Librarians in charge of libraries of which the stock consists of works printed on paper - non-electronic libraries - work within a legislative framework defined by common law and statute. As managers or employers they have obligations towards staff covering terms and conditions of work, health and safety at the workplace and so on, and similar obligations towards members of the public as regards safety and security. As well as these general obligations there are a number of concerns specific to their role as providers of services and handlers of intellectual property. These concerns include copyright in and ownership of intellectual property, liability, the law of libel, and control of seditious, racist or obscene publications. (A news item in the New Scientist of 29th January 1994 reports that one scientist is suing another for libel, for questioning his scientific competence in seven messages on the Usenet computer network last year. "The fact that something is put on a [computer] bulletin board doesn't make it any less susceptible for libel than a national newspaper.")

In an electronic context, the same considerations continue to apply, with the addition of concerns for data protection (requiring compliance with the Data Protection Act 1984 and any subsequent legislation) and computer security (including computer fraud, virus attack and hacking). In both conventional and electronic environments, the position of the librarian is generally that of middleman between the producer or supplier and the customer. As purchaser of goods and services the librarian has rights vis-a-vis the supplier, and as supplier of goods and services, obligations towards the library's clients. As intermediary, the librarian is to some extent acting as policeman, ensuring that clients comply with legal requirements, such as those concerning the making of copies, and the manipulation of text.

One of the complications introduced by electronic publishing is that its protean nature and the ease with which texts can be moved about in networks tends to make it difficult to identify the originator, responsible person or rights owner. This is not so much of a problem with electronic publications supplied on a physical medium, but could be important in dealing with questions of, for instance, liability. In most cases, the librarian's best defence would be to be able to demonstrate that, consonant with the common law "duty of care" towards the library's clients, all reasonable care had been exercised in providing a service, including the provision of information. In supplying clients with material in a machine-readable form, including supply over a local area network, "reasonable care" would probably be taken to include checking the material supplied to ensure that it was uncontaminated by viruses.

In common with all other parties involved with electronic publishing and/or network management and use, what the librarian most wishes to see from the legislators is clearer guidance regarding the legal and regulatory environment. At present, the greater part of the relevant legislation applies to the pre-electronic era, and its applicability to electronic systems and structures is not clear. Greater definition, arrived at in consultation with all interested parties, is highly desirable.

In the United States, a set of general principles which should apply to the electronic distribution of and access to data have been published by NFAIS (ref25). These look at the rights of those involved in any data distribution agreement and cover:

Identification of ownership of the data or information.

Identification of the data users, arguing that the owners of the data have the right, in the interests of product development and user education, to know the identity of the consumers.

The right of the consumer to privacy.

The right of the owner and consumer to information concerning the distribution path.

Identification of the terms and conditions of access to the data.

The rights of the owner in connection with the financial arrangements dealing with distribution, as well as the means of measuring and pricing data use.

The rights of the user to information concerning the original source of the information accessed.

Preservation of accuracy in the data during the distribution process.

The right to quality in the distribution service, in terms of availability, continuity, and other features.

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