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Richard Price

Poetry Publishers and Legal Deposit at the British Library

Richard 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 poetry publishers.

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 Act). 

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:

The Agent
Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries
100 Euston Street

In Practice

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 reminder”.

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 for deposit.

But what is a “publication”?

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  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 on, too.

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 Reader Registration for further information about admission.

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
Reader Registration
Legal Deposit
Integrated Catalogue

Modern British and Irish Poetry
Featured Authors and Special Collections
Fine Press, Artists’ Books, and Book Arts
Little Magazines
Zines, Fanzines, Alternative Comics and Graphic Novels 


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