The Copyright Licensing Agency, which is demanding payment for the licence to make photocopies of copyright material, believes charges are almost certain. Colin Hadley, its chief executive, said: 'The British Library photocopies 2.6 million copies of journal articles every year, so we are very interested in what is going on in British libraries.'
It also argues that a precedent was set when public libraries agreed similar copyright licences with the British Phonographic Industry for the rights to lend CDs and tapes.
The cost of an annual licence to give public libraries the right to make multiple simultaneous copies of a chapter or article is likely to be agreed next month at a meeting between the CLA and library representatives. The cost may be passed on to the public - mostly schoolchildren carrying out projects and local businessmen.
The CLA, founded in 1982, has turned its guns on libraries after working its way through business, government ministries and the education sector - licensing schools, colleges and universities to bring in pounds 6.5m a year. Its authority derives from the recent Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 and the agency represents about 1,300 publishers and 50,000 authors.
The licence would end the grey area surrounding photocopying in libraries. At present librarians can make a photocopy of a chapter of a book for one schoolchild, but if another from the same school asks for a copy of the same chapter and the librarian can remember doing the first copy, they must refuse. Similarly, if a businessman asks for a certain photocopy on one day, then returns and asks for a second copy, that request must be refused if the librarian can remember making the first copy.
Library sources privately admit that, until now, some photocopying of copyright material by library users has been done illegally because the public is ignorant or reckless about the complex copyright law, even though signs are displayed above photocopiers advising them of it. But they fear a licence agreement could undermine the freedom of the public and the library service to make any photocopies at all of copyright material under 'fair dealing' laws enshrined in 1988 Copyright Act. This right to photocopy information for 'private study or research' has never been tested in court.
Their other concern is where the money will come from. The Government is unlikely to be sympathetic. In October, Iain Sproat, junior minister at the Department of National Heritage with specific responsibilities for libraries, asked the Public Libraries Conference: 'Is there still something sufficiently distinctive about reading as recreation to justify its being made publicly available without charge?'
The other sources for funds are the local authorities, the book funds and the library users. One scenario is that the cost of photocopies in libraries - already more expensive then many copyshops - will double. But Sandy Norman of the Library Association warns that if that happens, users will be encouraged to do photocopying illegally elsewhere, steal books, or tear out pages. 'Once we start paying we will never be able to stop, even if illegal photocopying by the public slows down to a trickle,' she said.
At present there is little safeguard of copyright in British public libraries. Many photocopiers are coin-operated and librarians do not have time to police them. Users who infringe agreements are unlikely to be caught. That may change if a licence is agreed. Last year the CLA secretly enrolled a CLA executive onto a course at Greenwich College, south-east London, to prove that it was reproducing copyright material in course notes.Reuse content