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Digital Copyright Policy for Libraries: Licensing Agreements

What are Licensing Agreements?

Licensing agreements and policies between publishers (the licenser) and libraries (the licensee) serve to regulate the use of electronic resources and  ensure that the library obtains proper access to the works. If a library were to misread, misinterpret, or neglect the licensing agreement, the library could lose access to the licensed resources and can create legal risk for the library and its involved institutions. It is important for librarians to understand licensing agreements, but they are often written with confusing legalize that some librarians don't understand. 

In addition to this, depending on the agreement, licensing digital resources can become too expensive for limited library budgets. For example, in 2019, NYPL had to cancel its agreement with the video streaming service Kanopy, because they couldn't afford it anymore. To mediate the burden of the demand driven acquisition (DDA) licensing models that companies like Kanopy offer, libraries often have to limit the amount of checkouts per patron per month. 

Consortial Ebook Licensing

One way that academic libraries in particular have dealt with the costly switch to licensing models for digital materials is to become a part of a consortia of libraries that share resources with each other. However, some of the larger publishers, like Hachette Book Group, have caught on to the popularity of consortial licensing and have decided not to allow their resources to be shared through consortia. 

While consortial eBook licensing may help relieve the financial burden of licensing models, it doesn't address the long-term concerns that librarians have about licensing models. Many worry that if libraries continue purchasing more licensing agreements, they may become fully reliant on the publishing companies for content. In addition to this, libraries do not own their licensed collections and therefore cannot archive and preserve the written word. 


The American Association of Law Libraries' Procurement Toolkit and Code of Best Practices for Licensing Electronic Resources provides an in-depth guide on the best methods to negotiate and understand licensing agreements. 

ALA's Association for Library Collections and Technical Services has a webinar available on YouTube that discusses how best to approach licensing agreements to progress libraries' mission of providing access to information.

Library Journal has a list of "the big 5" publishing companies and the terms, conditions, and prices they offer libraries for their eBooks. Note that the list has not been updated since 2015 and may be out of date in some areas. 

Additional Readings


Hess, S., Kilb, M., & Garcia, I. (2020). Contract Construction: Creating an Effective Licensing Toolkit in an Academic Library Setting. Serials Librarian78(1–4), 22–27.

Larivière, V., Haustein, S., & Mongeon, P. (2015). The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era. PLoS ONE10(6), 1–15.

Machovec, G. (2013). Consortial ebook Licensing for Academic Libraries. Journal of Library Administration53(5–6), 390–399.

Polchow, M. (2021). Exploring Perpetual Access. Serials Librarian, 1–7.

Schwartz, M. (2013). Ebook Fair Play: It’s a License, or a Sale, but It Can’t Be Both | LJ Insider | Library Journal. Library Journal.