For almost a century, publishers have been legally required to deposit books with the British Library. But a draft law will be debated in the House of Lords tomorrow that, perhaps bizarrely, seeks to extend this obligation to web site operators.
Chris Mole, Labour MP for Ipswich, has laudable intentions for the Legal Deposit Libraries Bill, calling it his "bid to capture electronic publications for future generations."
Such a motive inspired the Internet Archive, a non-profit US project that has archived snapshots of web pages since 1996 and makes them publicly available via its popular Wayback Machine. But the Internet Archive, with benefactors including AT&T, Xerox and the Library of Congress, does all the hard work: like search engine bots, it visits your site and records what it finds.
The new proposal switches responsibility to the publisher to deliver a copy of his site, at his own expense.
And this raises the threat of a financial and logistical nightmare for site operators. If passed, this burden will not be immediate; rather, the bill is an empowering measure for the Secretary of State for Culture, currently Tessa Jowell. But she is then given rights to pass sweeping new regulations.
It was Ms Jowell's Department for Culture, Media and Sport that drafted the new law; Chris Mole explains on his web site that he introduced it to Parliament after drawing twelfth place in the Private Members Bill lottery that gives only twenty MPs a year a chance to bring forward their own piece of legislation.
An Explanatory Note prepared for Parliament to accompany the Bill explains that its purpose is to give the Secretary of State "power to extend the system of legal deposit progressively and selectively to cover various non-print media as they develop, including off-line publications (e.g. CD-ROMs and microfilms), on-line publications (e.g. e-journals) and other non-print materials."
The Bill itself says:
There are six national libraries where deposits are required. But it is the requirement that it is "at his own expense" that will cause most concern.
Is it a copy of all files comprising a site that is required? Is a fully operational off-line version required for access at the libraries? Is the content management system to go with the files? How do sites ensure that personal information is not included? What about password-protected areas or other pages that a site does not want publicly archived?
We are not told the answers. But it's easy to see how the costs could become prohibitive, particularly for small organisations with large web sites. These details are left to the Secretary of State's future regulations.
The section on enforcement won't go unnoticed, either. For those who fail to deliver, the Bill says a court can, at a library's request, order compliance. If that does not work, the court can instead make an order requiring the publisher to pay to the library "an amount which is not more than the cost of making good the failure to comply."
For non-print publications, such as web sites, databases and software, the Secretary of State may make regulations on how quickly a deposit library is entitled to delivery of a copy (traditional publishers get a month from when the book comes out) – so the Bill itself is silent on timescales.
The Secretary of State can also make regulations to require the non-print publisher to deliver "a copy of any computer program and any information necessary in order to access the work, and a copy of any manual and other material that accompanies the work and is made available to the public". Again, the Bill goes into no more detail, which leaves wide open the question of what this really means.
The issue of liability for defamation is addressed; but it unavoidably complicates the existing rules for on-line defamation.
The message from Mole is that there is no cause for concern. But publishers don't see it this way. The Press Association complains that the Bill was introduced without any consultation with the industry and that it is far too wide.
Describing the bill as "a hopeless mess" and a "dangerous law," the Press Association cites critics who warn that it could cover not just the BBC and ITN web sites, but private web sites, possibly even text messaging services, as well as electronically published journals, periodicals, databases and educational publications. All this is done, says the group, with no consideration to the cost to publishers.
Its best example is Reuters, a news agency which it says produces the equivalent of 10,000 CDs of information every day. How, asks its industry source, would the libraries cope with that?
The bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons in July. Tomorrow, it gets its second reading in the House of Lords. Most Private Members' Bills don't get this far. But if passed, the fears of digital publishers may not be realised, because they depend entirely on the detail of future regulations. Right now, of course, that provides no reassurance for those who look set to carry the cost.
The draft bill is available as a 14-page PDF.
Explanatory notes are available here.