Licensed to fail
How licensing ended ‘established and respected’ international document supply service

You are here

World map with arrows showing which countries use international document supply service.
International document supply is an essential information service. A survey of 15 libraries in Australia showed that every single library participated in cross-border collaborations. Source: T. Hepworth.

In this blog, Teresa Hackett, EIFL Copyright and Libraries Programme Manager, reveals the data behind the demise of the British Library’s international non-commercial document supply service, reinforcing the argument that such services should be regulated by copyright law, not by licence.

Document delivery is a vital service in meeting the particular information needs of individual researchers, students and scholars.

On 1 July 2016 the British Library (BL), one of the world’s largest research libraries, terminated its international non-commercial document delivery service just four-and-a-half years after it became licence-based.

New data obtained by EIFL under Freedom of Information requests document the reasons behind the decline of the “established and respected” service that, until 2012, had been meeting the needs of researchers around the world for five decades under a copyright exception.

The demise of the British Library service illustrates how licensing, far from delivering greater resources to professionals and scholars, has failed them. It reaffirms that international document delivery for non-commercial purposes should be regulated by copyright law, not by licence.

Supporting  global science and scholarship for 50 years

Inter-library document supply is a managed system of resource-sharing between libraries that enables an end user to access specific resources that are not otherwise available to them. Requests are made on a non-commercial basis taking into account any copyright or licensing conditions. International requests are made when the material is not available locally.

The British Library (BL) is one of the world’s largest research libraries with a collection developed over 250 years and exceeding 150 million separate items. For 50 years, the international document supply service, a lifeline for hard-to-find information for the research community, supported global science and scholarship. The service, known as the Overseas Library Privilege Service, was backed by a copyright exception.

To protect the Library from claims of copyright infringement, the service was replaced with a publisher-approved licensing arrangement, known as the International Non-Commercial Document Supply (INCD) service. Launched on 1 January 2012, the licensed service was hailed by publishers as a new model for “delivering greater resources to professionals and scholars worldwide”. In reality, the service withered on the vine.

On 1 July 2016, the British Library terminated its international non-commercial document delivery service due to the significant decline in requests.

Data obtained by EIFL under Freedom of Information (FOI) requests in April 2015 and March 2016 document the reasons behind the sharp decline in demand, and show that the impact on access to information for faculty, scholars and the health sector has been dramatic.

Titles available down, satisfied requests down, refusals up

The number of journal titles available under the non-commercial licensed service (INCD) fell immediately by 93% from 330,700 titles in 2011 to just 23,600 in 2012, and remained at this level into 2015.

The figures also show that many titles ‘disappeared’ from the new system altogether. In 2012, 8.5% (28,300) were no longer available at all, either at commercial or non-commercial rates. By 2015 the figure of unavailable titles had risen to 28% (94,044), indicating that a growing number of publishers were unable or unwilling to allow their use at all under this distribution channel.

This means that the majority of journal titles were available only at higher commercial rates. Anecdotal evidence suggested that a single article at commercial rates could cost up to $80, too expensive for most academic and research library budgets.

“We did try the new British Library service a couple of times when nobody else on earth had what we needed. But because of the enormous increase in prices, we dare not even look at the website anymore.” - Library of the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences

The dramatic drop in the number of available journal titles is reflected in an immediate equally dramatic drop in the number of satisfied requests, that is, requested articles that were successfully supplied.

In the first year of the licensed service (2012), the number of satisfied requests fell by 92% from 38,100 to just 2,884. By the end of 2015, the number had fallen further to 635 satisfied requests, representing a year-on-year reduction of 98%.

Based on the number of satisfied requests in 2011, more than 152,000 requests for information could normally have been expected to have been fulfilled during 2012-2015. The new service was withering on the vine.

While the British Library still has the documents of course, under the licensed service they were in many cases no longer allowed to provide access to them. In fact, in 2012 more requests for information were refused due to licensing restrictions (2,942), than were satisfied under the new INCD service (2,884).

By 2015 the number of requests refused on licensing grounds remained high - 291 refusals compared to 635 satisfied requests.

“In 2012, a patron at Columbia University requested two pages from an early twentieth century literary journal found only at the British Library. Although the Library had the journal, it was not allowed to send the pages. The patron couldn’t comprehend the refusal.” -  Peter Bae, former Head of Delivery Services, Columbia University

Hospital requests plummet

One sector that is heavily reliant on access to specialist knowledge is the health care sector. Staff working in public hospitals, post-graduate medical centres and other health services require access to the best resources to support frontline patient care, clinical and corporate governance, research, education and professional development. When the resources are not available locally, the institution’s library searches abroad.

We decided to include hospitals in our FOI request to the British Library in March 2016 to see if the licensed service was having an impact.

In 2011 records show that the British Library supplied hospitals in 20 countries - from Australia to Switzerland - with information in response to 1,775 requests. Hospitals in Ireland made the greatest number of requests (1,021), followed by Australia (177) and Sweden (170).

From 2012 to 2015, hospital requests plummeted. In 2012, no hospitals were supplied under the INCD service.  Over the three years between 2013 and 2015, exactly 100 requests were supplied to four countries.

The fact that the countries supplied, with the exception of Brazil, are developed countries reinforces the notion that the prime reason for using international document supply services is the local unavailability of specialist material. Which makes the large reduction in the service to hospitals all the more regrettable.

"What happened at the British Library is a great shame. The copyright fees became prohibitively expensive overnight. For example in 2013 we requested a five-page article from a 2004 issue  of ‘Practice Nursing’. It would have cost £45 (€55/$61) - that’s £9 (€11/$12) per page! The library couldn’t afford to pay for the article, and neither could the user.” - Librarian in a public hospital in Ireland

Countries served continued to drop

With its rich, multi-lingual collections covering every subject, the British Library was used as a back-up by librarians in many countries searching for specific information on behalf of their researchers.

In 2011 under the copyright-based service, the Library provided information to libraries in 59 countries (almost one third of WIPO Member States). By 2014, the number of countries served under the licensed service had fallen to 33 and by the end of 2015, to 26 countries.


Licensed service terminated

On 2 June 2016, the British Library announced that the International Non-Commercial Document Supply (INCD) service would be withdrawn from 1 July 2016.  The significant decline in requests from overseas non-commercial organizations since 2012 meant that the INCD service was no longer sustainable.

Of course requests did not suddenly dry up because the demand for information was no longer there (after all the British Library had been providing an overseas document delivery service for 50 years).

As the data shows, demand fell off primarily because the number of journals available under the licensed service decreased dramatically. New licensing rules meant that in some cases the BL could no longer provide access to the requested material. In others, the articles were available but were no longer affordable.

In addition, the licensed service imposed increased compliance on libraries and their users and added administration, such as an annual cap on the number of articles requested. Librarians had warned that the added burdens would discourage use of the new service.

And while some may be choosing to use alternative services, such as pay-per-view or direct delivery options, it does not explain the sudden and dramatic drop in requests that coincided with the introduction of the licensed-based service.

What are the consequences?

Finding alternative sources for material that is not readily available takes time and expertise. Libraries that employ specialist document supply librarians might have a chance of tracking down hard-to-find items.  At less well-resourced institutions, and at the majority of libraries that do not have the specialist staff, faculty, researchers and students are deprived of the information they need through legitimate channels.

When looked-for journal articles, book chapters, conference proceedings or other specialist material cannot be obtained, it denies or delays research. When the collection of a major library, such as the British Library, is put beyond the reach of libraries in other countries, the loss to the global library and research communities is significant.

When information for science and scholarship is difficult to obtain due to copyright or licensing restrictions, it makes research more difficult for students and faculty. For libraries, it reduces their effectiveness in supporting education and research. For policy-makers, it reduces efforts to build respect for the law in society, and has the opposite effect of driving people to unauthorized sources.

In other words, it fails everyone - authors, publishers and society.

A copyright exception to support international document delivery

Quality research requires access to a broad range of research materials. We know that world class research requires an information infrastructure that supports easy access to international research results. And we also know that lack of access means missed opportunities and delayed discoveries.

International document delivery is a vital supplementary service in meeting the particular information needs of individual researchers, students and scholars.

The demise of the British Library service, described in 2011 as “an established and respected document supply service” by the International Association of STM Publishers shows that licensing is not the solution.

This is why a copyright exception to support international inter-library document delivery is needed.

This blog is an updated version of a blog originally published on 30 June 2015. It has been updated to include data for 2015 and for requests for information by hospitals.

Read a more detailed discussion (14 pages pdf) or a two-page summary (pdf).

EIFL submitted Freedom of Information requests to the British Library in April 2015 and in March 2016. Read the responses for 2015 here and for 2016 here.

Read the original blog

Recommended reading ‘Time for a single global copyright framework for libraries and archives’, by Teresa Hackett, WIPO Magazine, December 2015

Teresa Hackett is Copyright and Libraries Programme Manager for EIFL.