Skip to main content

JILT 1996 (2) - Robin Williamson

Revision of Crown Copyright licensing

Comments from an electronic publisher

Mr. Robin Williamson
Context Limited

1. Introduction

2. The electronic archive of Crown Copyright materials

3. The Internet

4. Parliamentary Copyright

5. The Statute Law Database

Word icon and download article in .doc formatDownload


Date of publication: 7 May 1996

Citation: Williamson, Robin (1996) Revision of Crown Copyright licensing, Comments from an electronic publisher 1996 (2) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>

1. Introduction

Changes to the administration of Crown Copyright were announced recently in a government statement by John Freeman, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on 9th February 1996 and in a letter to publishers from HMSO dated 1st March 1996.

For electronic publishers such as Context, the icing on the cake is the extension of permission to reproduce Crown Copyright material without permission or charge to the electronic form of the full text of Acts of Parliament, Statutory Instruments and Statutory Rules and Orders and Press Releases. This permission requires the publisher to add value to the material (by compilation with other related text, analysis, commentary, indexing, cross-referencing or otherwise), to acknowledge the source as Crown Copyright and to reproduce Crown material accurately. This permission includes publication on the Internet.

This relaxation is generally welcomed by publishers. Context already had licences to publish SIs on a number of databases, and will no longer pay fees to HMSO for this right. But a number of grey areas remain unresolved. These areas, discussed below, are:

  • The future ownership and control of the electronic archive of Crown Copyright materials.
  • 'Free' publication of official texts on the Internet
  • The future policy for publication of Parliamentary Copyright material in electronic format.
  • Public access to the Statute Law Database.

2. The electronic archive of Crown Copyright materials:

Under the new arrangement the commercial publisher can publish electronic versions of Crown material without prior permission or charge. But the publisher has to create the electronic version from the printed texts. Since virtually every piece of printed Crown material is originated in electronic format, HMSO controls a vast archive of electronic source material. This archive is the raw material from which many added value electronic products could be developed. The creation of the archive has been funded by the public purse. There is no mention in the minister's statement or in the 'Dear Publisher' letter of 1st March of who will own or control the archive following the privatisation of HMSO. Will the electronic archive be one of the assets sold to the private sector, or will the archive remain in the public sector? If the archive remains with the public sector, on what basis will commercial publishers be able to acquire rights to use the archive? If control passes to a privatised HMSO, is it fair that access to the back electronic archive of Crown material created at public expense should be used to benefit the new shareholders? There is a strong case to be made for ownership of the existing electronic archive to be retained in the public sector and made available on reasonable terms to commercial publishers, including a privatised HMSO.

It is very much in the public interest for a lively competitive market to develop, based on giving added value to official information delivered in electronic format. This market will develop slowly, if at all, if publishers first have to incur the heavy cost of conversion of the printed texts into electronic format. An enlightened policy of offering low cost licences to reproduce material from the existing electronic archive should be part of the scheme to privatise HMSO. Further, as new material is added to the archive this too should be available for licence.

3. The Internet

The Internet is another grey area in the new policy towards electronic publication of Crown materials. The principle of making official information available on the Internet free of charge is to be generally welcomed. Commercial publishers should have no problem with this policy, provided the 'free' versions are confined to the simple republication of the electronic form of the original printed version of the text. Commercial publishers should be able to make a living by offering the same materials with added value, at a price. The professional user of Crown material is prepared to pay for a version that saves time - whether by good indexing, hypertext links, superior retrieval software or other electronic added value. It is not the business of the public sector to develop, at the taxpayers expense, sophisticated tools aimed at professional users. Commercial publishers cannot compete against such free versions, and will not enter the market. Competition fosters constant improvement in user facilities, and costs are kept in check by competitive pressure.

4. Parliamentary Copyright

The new policy also remains vague about the future of Parliamentary copyright. It is very much to be hoped that Parliamentary copyright will be administered on the lines indicated above. Parliament creates an electronic archive of parliamentary material - the full text of Hansard, proceedings of Select Committees, Parliamentary Papers and so on. This archive should be available on reasonable terms to commercial publishers for incorporation into added value products. A basic form of the texts from the archive may also be published free on the Internet, with minimal added value.

5. The Statute Law Database

One final remaining grey area. The minister's statement refers to the Statute Law database currently under development by the Statutory Publications Office within the Lord Chancellor's Department. Copyright and charging policy 'will be decided nearer the time of implementation in 1997'. This decision is of major importance to electronic publishers - and to potential users. Again, publishers would wish to see a procedure whereby any qualified commercial publisher could be given access to the database for republishing with added value. There is no reason why more than one version of the database should not emerge, offering choice to the user. The basic texts of statutes in force can be made freely available on the Internet alongside competing commercial versions.

The changes announced so far are on the right track. We hope that as policy is further developed and refined a vigorous and competitive market for high quality electronic products using readily available electronic sources will grow, alongside freely available texts that satisfy the citizen's demand for access to the country's law.

JILT logo and link to home page