Much ado about licences and subscriptions

  • This resource is free – therefore we don’t have a subscription
  • Why do we need a licence if the subscription doesn’t cost anything?
  • Why can’t we give walk-in users or retired members of staff the same access to e-resources as current students and staff?
  • I don’t pay for this resource, therefore it is free
  • Why can’t I share my login with my housemate/friend/partner?
  • Logging in to library resources is a pain – why do we have to do it?
  • If the library has bought this resource, why can’t we do what we like with it?

I am regularly asked these types of questions, and this blog post distills the essence of my responses.

What is a licence?

To license means to grant permission.  A licence may be issued by a licensor to allow a licencee an activity that would otherwise be forbidden.

What is a license?

An American licence 🙂 Licence and licenseSee also: practice/practise, and advice/advise.

But it’s ‘licensor’ in both British English and American English…

Examples of licences

The CLA licence is well-known in universities, where it allows University members limited rights to legally copy, share or re-use legally works which would otherwise be covered only by copyright law (which prevent others from copying or reproducing someone’s work).

Examples of licencees

A licence can be agreed between a licensor and an individual licencee (e.g. relating to ebook on a personal ereader), or by an organisation on behalf of and for many individuals (e.g. a university library, for the library’s users).

In the example of the university library, a licence will usually have a section relating to authorised users, which sets out which library users are included in the agreement.  By omission, it also indicates the types of users which are not permitted.  This is why some user groups such as walk-in users are allowed access to some e-resources and not others, because we can only legally give them access to resources whose licences name walk-ins as authorised users.

E-resources access is limited to authorised users only by the use of authentication – usually by logging in with a valid university user ID and password.

What is a subscription?

A subscription is an arrangement to receive something.  It can apply to publications which are updated on a regular basis, such as journals, where the subscriber receives the new content at intervals as part of the agreement; or to a database, or archive database.

Subscriptions often involve payment, but not always. Examples of payment-free subscriptions include databases to which a national agreement is in place to allow access for users in higher education, but for which individual universities are not required to pay.

It is important to realise that even if a subscription is free, a licence will usually apply nonetheless.

 Multiple meanings of “free”

“Free” can mean that no payment is involved, or it can mean that users are at liberty to use a product or service as they wish.  Because “free” can mean these two very different things, it is helpful to use the terms “gratis” (no payment) and “libre” (liberal use) to differentiate between them.

A gratis subscription is rarely also libre, sometimes because of the relevant licence, and almost always because of copyright law.

See also my post An introduction to Open Access for academics, explaining gratis and libre in terms of Open Access.

Liability and awareness

If the terms of a licence are not followed, there can be a range of consequences.  It is important that users who will be bound by such terms are made aware of them.  This is why the CLA Licence is displayed next to university library photocopiers, and when accessing a database, users are often asked to accept the terms as part of the process of logging in.

Unfortunately, the wording of many licences is verbose and impersonal, which leads to many people not reading the details, or realising that they have important legal consequences.

“I acknowledge that I have read and agree to the above Terms and Conditions” is often reported to be a checkbox ticked by software users without reading the documents, let alone agreeing to them.  It also annoys my academic colleague Chris Baldwin, who teaches Contract Law, and has to point out repeatedly that ‘conditions’ means the same as ‘terms’, making the duplication a grammatical tautology.

The lack of attention paid to reading the small print has been the subject of pranks where clauses included forfeiting your soul, or assigning your firstborn child to the licensor for the duration of eternity (the “Herod clause”).   Luckily for the licencees, these clauses were not enforced.  The moral is: read the terms.

Apple terms and conditions

Adam & Eve: the first people to not read the Apple terms & conditions

Source: Reddit (warning: some fruity language in the comments)

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: So long, Sunderland – and some data-related unfinished business | Laura's Dark Archive

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