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Factors to Consider When Licensing Out-of-Copyright Materials

California Digital Library

Joint Steering Committee for Shared Collections – July 2006

A number of recent announcements of mass digitization projects that include out-of-copyright material are challenging our collective decision-making process when these same materials are available in a commercially licensed product. The SLASIAC 2005 progress report on Systemwide Strategic Directions For Libraries And Scholarly Information called attention to this issue, referring to the UC’s participation in large-scale digitization efforts as potentially offering opportunities for “reducing expenditures on vendor products that are based on out-of-copyright and other public domain materials.”  Do we license a commercial version of out-of-copyright content when a digitized version is already openly available? How do we assess whether an open digitized version is sufficiently robust to meet UC’s needs? Do we license content to satisfy the immediate needs of UC faculty and students when future digitization projects promise open access?  With such prospects in view, should we choose a time-limited subscription to the licensed version over perpetual ownership rights in order to contain our costs? When do we choose to digitize out-of-copyright materials ourselves or with partners using existing UC collections in preference to licensing? Conversely, when is it more cost-effective to license material instead of building it?  The SLASIAC report challenges us to incorporate such considerations in our decision process for licensing materials in the public domain.

Evaluation Criteria

Standard evaluation criteria should be applied to any resource under consideration, whether licensed or open access. These include the UC Principles for Acquiring and Licensing Materials in Digital Formats and the more specific criteria outlined in documents such as the CDL Technical Requirements for Vendors, CDL Resource Selection Criteria, and the CDL Licensing Checklist. Given the intrinsic benefits of lower cost and barrier-free access that open content initiatives promise, such evaluations necessarily take on a new dimension when competing licensed and open access versions are available.  For example, if material is held in an analog format and is (or is planned to be) also available in an open access form, licensing yet another version may warrant special scrutiny or justification.

In the course of evaluating any new resource for systemwide licensing, many individuals and groups will usually be involved:

  • bibliographer groups who submit the original request
  • CDL staff analyzing campus requests
  • JSC in prioritizing requests
  • JSC in prioritizing requests

When evaluating requests for systemwide licensing of new resources that include out-of-copyright material, the following factors should be considered by each group involved at the various stages of evaluation:

  • Whether an alternative open access version exists or is planned
  • Whether UC is actively pursuing or considering a digitization opportunity for the same material, either alone or collaboratively (e.g. CDL-built content through OCA)
  • If a future open access version is anticipated, the value of access to content now vs. open access at some point in the future.  Factors to consider might include, for example, the level or urgency of user demand and/or potential near-term cost savings through print deduplication and/or remote storage
  • A careful appraisal of whether there is sufficient added value in the licensed version to justify the expenditure of scarce collection dollars when an alternative version exists.  Factors to critically evaluate in this light might include:
    • The value derived from a relationship to other currently-licensed material (e.g. backfiles of currently-licensed journals where access may be integrated
    • Aggregation of content under a single interface as opposed to independently-created digitized versions that lack coordinated access
    • Indexing and presentation of content, or other added features that enhance the end user experience. Recognizing end users’ increasing preference for ‘single search box’ simplicity in accessing content, careful judgments should be made about whether an open access resource is adequate to satisfy the bulk of UC student and faculty needs
  • The degree to which the licensed resource adheres to UC licensing and technical requirements.  Nonconformity that might be overlooked when alternatives are unavailable may be less acceptable in the face of open access.

Next Steps

While we recognize that it is ‘early days’ in the emerging relationship between licensed and open content, the UC libraries’ stated interest in developing a more holistic approach to collection development across these domains requires us to increasingly engage such questions. As a first step, bibliographers should attempt to identify relevant open access projects and opportunities in their areas of expertise and address the above criteria in any licensing recommendations submitted to JSC. The CDL licensed content and built content programs will also begin consulting regularly to identify synergies with digitizing initiatives. As we begin to incorporate these criteria in decisions that include public domain content, our collective understanding of these issues and their interplay will increase.