Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: Staying Legal

Stuart Hannabuss examines an interesting collection of essays and, with reservations, likes the second edition a lot more.

Like climbing Everest, information law is now a highly competitive field. The first edition of this work, edited by Chris Armstrong alone, appeared from Facet in 1999. It reflected the preoccupations of the mid-1990s, captured changing law like Internet regulation and database rights, and showed a growing understanding of information liability and the need properly to interpret contracts. It was good to return to what is clearly an overhauled text in the form of the second edition, this time edited by Chris Armstrong and Laurence Bebbington, well-known for his legal column in the UKOLOG Newsletter.

Any study of law for information professionals will bring the pedants out of the woodwork. A quick look at some of the rivals in the field, say, Paul Marett's Information Law in Practice (Ashgate, 2nd edition, 2002) and Paul Pedley's Essential Law for Information Professionals (Facet Publishing, 2003), let alone the ever-evolving The Legal and Regulatory Environment for Electronic Information by Charles Oppenheim, the bevy of works on IT and computer law by Bainbridge and Reed and Lloyd, and three new works on copyright alone from Facet (by Sandy Norman, Tim Padfield, and Graham Cornish), confirms the faster professional pulse, probably because we all live in a much more legalistic and liability-aware world.

Information professionals, usually, cannot be their own lawyers, and most writers take care to disclaim that they are directly providing legal advice. Armstrong & Bebbington want to raise awareness, and get all information professionals involved : legal matters are no longer things we can leave to employers, legal advisers, outsourcers - it is all too risky. 'Staying legal is a constant struggle', a 'Canute-like struggle'. The law is complex but it is important to show 'common sense'. I would like to have seen this one teased out fully, and a start is made by McCracken in his chapter 'Agreements, User Licences and Codes of Practice'.

This is why we should all be much more aware of relevant and applicable law, especially electronic, EU and international law. I can see where this is all coming from but I find it rather preachy and negative, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in ways that I rarely find in the generally more assertive tone in books written by legal professionals in this field. As information professionals, I think we should, in SWOT terms, be more focused on opportunities than threats : the self-deprecation comes across as disingenuous.

What I think would also help a lot here is to get perfectly clear who exactly is involved and responsible. Throughout the book we get terms like information professional used in many different ways without pinning down, generally speaking, who is most likely to get involved in, and be most interested in reading about, say, the implementation of data protection or FOI (Freedom of Information Act) compliance, the liability implications of confidentiality or electronic interception, and Electronic Copyright Management Systems (ECMS) protection under copyright law. This is a rather floatingly inclusive approach which at times does take sharper focus, as in McCracken's re-write (from the first edition) of interpreting user licences, and Adams' chapter (new to the second edition) on patent registration, entitled 'Patents: Exploitation and Protection'.

So what about the overall design of the second edition? The first started with Universal Availability of Publications (UAP) and trotted through copyright (the only form of intellectual property rights to appear) and legal deposit, data protection and criminal liability, Internet regulation, user licences, information security and database rights. The thread was clearly focused on the information and library professional, and this thread has not been lost in the second edition, important for user segmentation when marketing the book (the target audience, by the way, is clearly libraries serving users studying information work and collections for busy professional and CPD use).

A second edition was much needed and it has got a lot right. Putting to one side the preachy tone or the indecision about whether to talk about the law or demonstrate how it can be interpreted and applied, there is nonetheless a lot right with much of the content. In common with the first chapter in the Pedley book, the second edition now starts with some ground rules about sources and scope of law. It has a UK (mainly England) focus but the principle is good. Severe critics would probably have put the whole thing into an appendix. Powers's chapter on 'Public Access to Legal Information', (chapter two of the new edition), opens up access to the law not just by professionals but also by members of the general public, in the context of citizenship. This is both more up to date and less abstract than what was there in the first edition on the digital divide.

I was very pleased to see a substantial expansion of intellectual property rights so as to include copyright, trade marks, and patents. This answered my question in the first edition - 'where on earth are they?'. They are now here in two good chapters by Waelde (good on passing off and misrepresentation) and Adams (including the legal and technical status of documents, and dealing with inventors). Bebbington has moved us a long way forward with a useful discussion of contracts (missing before, even though the generic theory can be found anywhere) and applications to outsourcing and Web sites. McCracken has updated his user licences in the context of the EC Directive on Copyright 2001/29/EC (implemented in the UK in October 2003), making me wonder why Coleman in her discussion of copyright centred on the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA) had not done the same.

Data protection moves on apace, with a new Information Commissioner with (generalising) responsibilities for freedom of information. Bebbington's chapter on this spends time on the data protection principles, which will be useful for the reader who has missed out on them, and pleasingly changes critical gear by analysing rights, offences, codes of practice, human rights, and interception. The editors could have had the confidence here to focus on the cutting-edge implications and interpretations, which would have made the chapter more 2004 in tone.

Charlesworth has revised his comprehensive early chapter on liability for an equally wide-ranging discussion in the second edition. This time the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIPA) Act and cybercrime figure prominently, since things have moved on. Even so it remains a mixed bag of a chapter in its determination to leave absolutely nothing out, and I would have liked more linkage, perhaps through the index, with liability-related issues elsewhere in the book. So rich a pudding is this chapter that more could be done with the issues, particularly to connect up specific issues with particular types of information role or responsibility. It is one thing to be aware of the importance of 'staying legal' and another to know just how and why. For the specialist working with ECMSs and digital rights and Internet deliverables, there is precious little here.

This is why Bebbington & Armstrong's final chapter, called 'Staying Legal', is so useful - it goes some way to doing just that, picking out areas, recommending a coherent risk management approach. Despite its preachiness, it does provide a much-needed overall coherence to what remains a bitty book. More, I believe, could also have been made of the wide range of issues in Rowe & Taylor's otherwise excellent (if vaguely titled) chapter on Internet law, in terms of connecting up the legal implications with the other discussions in the book.

Like Everest, then, there are many climbers on the mountain, some going up and some coming down, some with the very best equipment. Metaphors ultimately mislead in reviews, so to the book itself in conclusion : it needed to resuscitate itself to maintain its relevance, and to a large extent it has done that. It is not clear about its audience, it uses an awkward mixture of legal approaches (sometimes theoretical, sometimes practical), it does not always connect up the dots, it gets a bit too earnest. But it keeps its eye on the generic information professional and some chapters really hit home. Given the field, it has probably three years of practical life, and, like a dictionary, it is faced with a living language, in this case fast-changing law. For me, with my collection manager's hat on, I would ask whether some fifty pounds is value for money for an essentially retrospective survey.

Author Details

Dr Stuart Hannabuss
Aberdeen Business School

Email: s.hannabuss@rgu.ac.uk

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