Thoughts on the E-Book Revolution and Access to Legal Information

There have been a couple of blogposts recently that are worth noting – the first one marks the impending breaking of the $1 billion mark for e-books – posted on James McQuivey’s blog – and a related post a few days earlier on Law Librarian Blog about the release of 40,000 e-books by Springer without any DRM (Digital Rights Management) restrictions.

Our library is like many others – we have purchased e-books to provide the best range of resources to our academics and students. These are in addition to the paper, because we are lucky and for the UK at least we still get most paper publications via Legal Deposit. The e-books we can buy that are on reading lists vary from the very best publishing from our sister department, OUP, through to less critical but still handy collections on international law and commercial topics from Brill and Kluwer. Sweet & Maxwell – via Westlaw – provide e-book versions of the major Common Law Series titles, for a similar cost, law school wide, to that paid for a single paper copy. 

I am in two minds about e-books. I can see them as an invaluable addition to the suite of e-resources available to our students, and if they mean the user can get to to the page or chapter they need at a time they want, and from a location of their choosing beyond the law library, then this must be a good thing. We now have tens of thousands of titles, all linked from our catalogue, and discoverable if you know what you are looking for, or if someone has provided you with a link, eg, through a reading list. You can get a flavour of the coverage here, though you won’t be able to read any of them unless you are a member of our university. That’s a problem.

And this is where the Springer initiative is so interesting. They are not only providing the libraries with the e-books – they are ceding ownership of the e-book to the library, in exactly the same way they treat paper copies of books. And this seems only right. But the access will still be limited to members of our institutions, which concerns me. We do not restrict access to our paper books – anyone who comes to our library in person can read or copy any book in the library, whether they are members of our university or not. 

I agree with copyright restrictions up to a point, but it is strange that we continue to apply the concepts of an intellectual property right that was established in 1709 to e-books in particular, because they are not going to be used in the same way as paper. With paper books anyone could browse shelves and read or borrow books because of the copyright exemption rights given to libraries to provide books to readers. These rights have not been extended by legislation to e-books.

We have electronic publishing totally tied up by lawyers before the products even hit the ground on the one hand, and on the other, the internet generation who really do not care about copyright restrictions and the implications down the track of not protecting the author’s rights of ownership. The restrictions of access to e-books owned by an institution are put in place by the institution, through single sign-on protocols such as Shibboleth. That is so that we comply with publisher restrictions, but now, if the restriction is lifted, as with Springer, will the institutions be the ones to decide whether to offer a two tier system of access to e-books? 

It is unlikely that public libraries will be able to afford all the e-books on offer in specialist subjects, so these will usually be restricted to academic institutions, and non members will have difficulty getting access.

So my question is – if the tipping point is reached soon, and the publishers move to e-book publishing in preference to paper, will we still have libraries acting as silos, holding the same material throughout the country, but with only their constituents being able to read these e-books? Where will the ‘man-on-the-street’ go to consult law material? Will Springer’s bold move challenge their competitors so that the digital future will be a truly open virtual library? As consumers of academic e-book publishing we still have issues to address before we can be confident that an e-book library is the digital mirror image of a real book library.


  1. By a truly open virtual library, do you mean that anyone could access the holdings of the library from anywhere?
    If so, then why would anyone purchase a copy of anything at all; wouldn’t they prefer to use the free copy available through the library?
    Publishers generally would soon go out of business if their sales were affected in this way.
    I’d be interested to hear others’ views on this.

  2. E-books and electronic journal licencing poses a problem for those who are not part of the institutions but rely on their collections on interlibrary loan basis. We are a law firm and have a library card to the local university library which allows us to borrow paper books and receive copies of artices from paper journals for a fee. We cannot “borrow” an e-book, nor can we get “copies” of e-journal articles. I have always thought this is not right, since we are a user with a library card. We can go to the library and use their e-resources but going there is not always an option. What does e-book publishing do to the university ILL departments?