'To gather under one roof a copy of every book published'
A brief history of legal deposit
8 April 2016
The first ebook to be deposited under the amended legal deposit provisions was uploaded to the National Library’s new edeposit service just before 9 am on Wednesday, 17 February. Staff assembled to watch this historic event live gave a great cheer when the ecover of Thomas Keneally’s Napoleon’s Last Island appeared in the Library’s digital system. For the many staff working on this project over the last 12 months there was a palpable feeling of relief—the Library’s new edeposit service was up and working. More importantly, the Library finally had a mandate to collect electronic publications under the legal deposit provisions of the Copyright Act.
This was the most significant change to the federal legal deposit scheme since it was first established in Australia in 1912. However, the idea of legal deposit—a legal obligation on publishers or booksellers to supply a copy of every work they produced to a designated library or institution—has a much longer history.
François I, the sixteenth-century King of France, is credited as being the originator of the legal deposit concept. Some 100 years after the invention of the Gutenberg Press, he issued the 1537 Ordonnance de Montpellier. Under this law, all French booksellers and printers were required to lodge a copy of any works to be sold or printed with the royal library at Blois. The stated intention of the scheme was little different from modern legal deposit schemes—to ensure that the ‘works of today’ should not be ‘lost to the memory of mankind’. The law was remarkably wide-ranging covering all new books published, no matter their size, cost, subject matter, date or language. The law remained in place until it was abolished—briefly—during the French revolution, before being re-established in 1793.
Australian legal deposit, like many of our laws, however, owes more to English tradition than the French. The first English deposit scheme was set up by Sir Thomas Bodley in a private agreement with the Stationers Company in 1610. Under this arrangement, the Stationers Company agreed to provide the University Library at Oxford with a copy of every book printed under royal licence on the understanding that they could borrow the books again if needed for reprinting. That Bodley intended the basis of the scheme to be selective rather than comprehensive is evident in correspondence with the University Librarian, Thomas James, in which Bodley reprimanded him for cataloguing many ‘idle bookes & riffe raffes’ unworthy of admission to the University Library. Bodley it seems had a particular aversion to almanacs and plays and it appears that the first (quarto) editions of Shakespeare’s plays were amongst those ‘riffe raffe’ books excluded from the Library’s collection!
The Bodleian scheme was extended in 1662 to the Royal Library and the Library of the University of Cambridge. From 1709 legal deposit became a requirement for the grant of copyright under English law. The close association between the granting of copyright and legal deposit remained in place until early in the 20th Century and this is evident in the early Australian legislation.
The first Australian state to introduce a legal deposit scheme was Victoria in its Copyright Act of 1869, followed by other states in the years leading up to Federation. The earliest federal copyright legislation, the Copyright Act of 1905, did not contain any mention of a formal legal deposit scheme. However, second copies supplied to the Copyright Registrar were sent on to the Parliamentary Library.
In 1911 the United Kingdom passed new copyright legislation to meet its obligations under the Berne Convention, which required that copyright protection should be an automatic right, free of any other formality, such as registration. Australia quickly adopted the UK legislation, which also contained clauses relating to legal deposit. The Australian Copyright Act of 1912, which removed the requirement for registration of copyright, established a federal legal deposit scheme for the first time. Australian publishers were now required to deposit the best copy of every book published directly with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library. Billy Hughes, then Attorney-General in the Fisher Labor government, stated the purpose of the new scheme very clearly ‘The object of this clause is to gather under one roof – that of the Library of the Parliament of the Commonwealth – a copy of every book published in the Commonwealth.’ This material was to form the basis of the national collection, which was eventually devolved to the National Library in the 1960s.
The object of this clause is to gather under one roof—that of the Library of the Parliament of the Commonwealth—a copy of every book published in the Commonwealth.
Legal deposit remains the most important mechanism by which national and state libraries can preserve the published record of their countries or states. But from the emergence of electronic publishing in the 1980s (computer discs etc.) and online publishing in the 1990s, the Australian legal deposit scheme was only performing half its role. This was recognised by a number of enquiries in later years including those undertaken by the Copyright Law Review Committee (1999), the Joint Committee on Publications (2006) and many submissions to the Australian Government review on the extension of legal deposit of library material (2007). In its 1999 report, the CLRC recognised ‘the legal deposit provisions as important for the preservation of materials that are part of the nation’s cultural heritage. It is also quite apparent that, as presently worded, [the legal deposit scheme] is only of limited value in achieving this purpose.’
The significance of recent changes to the legal deposit scheme to ensure the preservation of the whole of Australia’s published history—whether in print or electronic—cannot be over-stated. In 2014/15, the National Library acquired over 16,000 print books, new serial titles, maps and music scores under legal deposit. In the same financial year, we acquired only 97 ebooks as gifts under the voluntary deposit scheme then operating. After just a month of operation under the new legal deposit provisions, we have already surpassed that number. As I write, 177 ebooks have been deposited under the new service and a number of emusic scores and eserial titles have been accepted into the collection. We have also commenced a harvest of the whole .au web domain.
The same question of comprehensiveness versus quality that so exasperated Sir Thomas Bodley in the 17th Century was raised during the 1912 Parliamentary debates. Some politicians seemed to share Bodley’s concern at the type of material that might be sent to the Library under the new scheme—perhaps even ‘pamphlets advertising corsets’, joked Senator Chataway from Queensland. The same senator admitted that some of the material sent to the Parliamentary Library via the Copyright Registrar was ‘rubbish’ and had later been disposed of under the authority of the Chairman of the Library Committee. He added ‘But the main point [of this legislation] is that we have a right to insist that we shall receive a copy of every pamphlet or book published.’
But the main point [of this legislation] is that we have a right to insist that we shall receive a copy of every pamphlet or book published.
That point remains true today. In recognition of the scale of online publishing, the new legal deposit legislation has been framed in such a way to place the obligation on the Library to request online material. Publishers of such material only need to supply it after receiving a request from the Library to do so.
The recent changes to legal deposit, extending its coverage to electronic publishing, restores the original intention of the federal legal deposit scheme. It ensures that the National Library is able to collect and preserve all Australian publications, whether print or electronic, for the benefit of all Australians both now and into the future—just as was envisaged when the scheme was first introduced more than 100 years ago. Surely, Billy Hughes, Senator Chataway and their fellow 1912 parliamentarians would heartily approve!
For more information on the recent changes to legal deposit, please see the Library’s website.
*I am indebted to a number of sources in preparing this post, but particularly John Gilchrist’s 2005 article 'Copyright deposit, legal deposit or library deposit' published in the Queensland University of Technology Law and Justice Journal.