Publishers and Legal Deposit at the British Library
Price, Head of Modern British Collections at the British Library and the
author of Lucky Day and Greenfields (Carcanet), gives an account of the legal
framework for UK
The Current Legislation
The law that all UK
publishers and Legal Deposit libraries are now working within is the Legal
Deposit Libraries Act 2003. It is a law in which the obligations are on
publishers rather than authors, except when the authors are self-publishers.
Note the “Legal Deposit” phrase – the idea of copyright has
been disentangled from the Libraries concerned so the old concept of
“Copyright Library” is no longer in use. Depositing a book with the
libraries doesn’t as such confer copyright status on the book.
The roots of the Legal Deposit law go back hundreds of years and have their
origins, in part, in censorship: the State wanted to keep an eye on who was publishing
what. The State doesn’t use the libraries as its way of gathering
intelligence anymore and instead an extraordinary byproduct has become the
overwhelming reason for Legal Deposit: the books and periodicals kept in this
way are an immense and rich archive of publications from all parts of the UK and over
large stretches of time.
It doesn’t matter what size of publisher: almost will be represented in
the level playing field created by the Legal Deposit collections.
The British Library
The Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003 continues previous legislation by giving
the British Library a different role to the other five Legal Deposit
Libraries (which are the National Library of Scotland, National Library of
Wales, the University Library, Cambridge; the
Bodleian Library, Oxford; and the Library of
Trinity College, Dublin).
Namely, “the British Library… is entitled to delivery… of a
copy of every work published in print [and] the copy must be delivered within
one month beginning with the day of publication.” (Section 4 of the
This means that the British Library doesn’t have to ask: it is the
legal obligation of the publisher to send one copy of everything they
publish. They should send it to:
The Legal Deposit Office, The British Library, Boston Spa, Wetherby, West
Yorkshire, LS23 7BY
The Other Libraries
For the other Legal Deposit Libraries, the law is different.
Each Legal Deposit Library is still entitled to each book, if it requests
that book within 12 months of publication. (Section 5). The five books should
be sent to a single address set up for the purpose:
Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries
100 Euston Street
What happens in practice is that many publishers put the British Library and
its address and the other Libraries and their single address on their mailing
list and send the appropriate numbers of books to the two addresses as each
book is published, as if on standing order. Although they should do this for
the British Library in any case (that’s the law we’re working
within), for the other five libraries they often don’t wait to be
asked, either: they simply send.
Sometimes publishers don’t send, though: they have plenty of things on
their mind and Legal Deposit might not be first on the list (that’s one
reason why it can be a good idea to make it part of the normal process of
publishing, rather than trying to remember about it after publication day).
So both the British Library and the other Libraries issue “claims”
for books that haven’t come in. This has sometimes given the impression
that the British Library needs to make a claim before the publisher is
obliged to send the work, but that’s not actually the case for the BL
(although it is for the other Libraries): it’s more like a “polite
What is “Published”?
The law applies to “a work published in print”. Specifically,
“a book (including a pamphlet, magazine or newspaper)” (Section 1
of the Act).
Note that pamphlets and magazines, so important to the poetry world, are very
much included in this definition.
It doesn’t matter whether a book has an ISBN or not: if it’s
published it still comes within the legislation. And it doesn’t matter
if a book has a price or is issued for free: the law still covers it as a
publication. The same goes for print-on-demand books: these are liable
But what is a
The Act adopts a broad definition: “publication… means the
issue of copies of the work to the public”. (Section 14).
There is no guidance here on how limited an edition would be before it ceased
to be issued to the public, and there is no definition of “private
publication”. One-offs and manuscript copies are exempt, though. My
feeling is that most printed books are likely to be issued to the public in
one way or another and though this clearly adds an expense, I’d advise
that the publisher factors in and budgets for six Legal Deposit copies when
calculating how many copies to make in a single edition and writes this off
as part of the expense of publication.
Some poets will self-publish booklets that they will either sell or give away
at readings. The Library doesn’t have the resources to actively pursue
the bulk of pamphlets distributed in this way but unless the reading is a
private party this sounds to me like “issue of copies… to the
public” and so I would think would probably qualify under Legal
Deposit. From the British Library point of view, publishers (or possible
publishers) should contact email@example.com if they are in doubt.
At the British Library
Personally as well as professionally speaking, I think Legal Deposit is one
of the key ways of safeguarding the extraordinary, developing richness of the
many different poetries there are in the UK. And it’s not just
about “safeguarding” – it’s about keeping a place
where poets themselves can come in and read these collections, can come in
and see what we have and then “pass it on” through their work;
and so that researchers (not necessarily institutionally accredited ones;
research is research) can produce works about and in celebration of poetry
texts (editions, essays, talks based on works they find here) and pass that
Because the British Library has a remit way beyond poetry it is doubly a
fabulous resource for poets and poetry researchers, who can use the Library
to read books on all subjects, from most countries, and in many languages.
It’s a very large reference library – you will have to come onsite to read a
great deal of our collections (we are not, directly, a lending library) and
sometimes you may have to wait a while before your book is delivered, unless
you order it online in advance. But the historical and geographical
strengths are likely to make it well worth any inconvenience. Check out our
Registration for further information about
We receive about 100,000 books per year on Legal Deposit alone, we buy
thousands of UK books, too, for our Document Supply service (which provides
interlibrary loans for public and academic libraries), and we buy thousands
of overseas published books, including poetry in translation and, for
instance, a selection of U.S. small press. Our printed books go back to the
15th century. We also have superb Sound Archive and Manuscripts collections,
and significant electronic poetry resources available in our reading rooms.
One new development is our Web Archive which has already archived instances
of several UK
poetry sites: site-owners are encouraged to contact the Library to suggest
their sites for the digital collection the Library is building. Please email:
The Library’s poetry resources are described on our web-pages, and
poetry is often featured in exhibitions. Below are some key British Library
pages that poets, poetry researchers, and poetry publishers may find useful.
British Library homepage
Modern British and Irish Poetry
Featured Authors and Special Collections
Fine Press, Artists’ Books, and Book Arts
Zines, Fanzines, Alternative Comics and Graphic Novels
Experience the British Library online at www.bl.uk
The British Library’s new interactive Annual Report and Accounts
2006/07 : www.bl.uk/mylibrary
Help the British Library conserve the world's knowledge. Adopt a Book. www.bl.uk/adoptabook