Deal or No Deal: Licensing and Acquiring Digital Resources

When I was hired as a collection development librarian in 1997, I never dreamed that a significant amount of my time would be spent evaluating, negotiating, licensing and maintaining electronic resources. Contracts was not my favorite course in law school, and I never understood the concepts of promissory estoppel, consideration and the mailbox rule. But when our library began converting our CD-ROM products to web products in the late 1990s, I had to learn the art of licensing quickly. For those of you who find yourselves in charge of digital acquisitions and licensing, here are some resources and techniques to help you get up to speed on licensing and put you on a level playing field with the vendor reps on the other side of the licensing table.


AALL, SLA, ALA and regional library associations often put together very helpful workshops on licensing. Led by librarians who regularly license products, these workshops provide practical advice on how to analyze, negotiate and structure electronic resource contracts for libraries. Workshops tailored to law librarians can be particularly helpful because law libraries typically license content from the same vendors. (AALL offered licensing sessions in 2000, 2002 and 2003; audiotapes are available for purchase on the AALL website.) Do not overlook workshops sponsored by non-law library organizations. As the legal sector tends to move slowly, librarians in other disciplines are often dealing with novel issues that law libraries will face in the future. Additionally, there are licensing concepts that are common to all libraries, regardless of whether they are law or non-law.


If you don’t have time to attend a formal class on licensing, a distance education course may be a good option. Lesley Ellen Harris of, a notable expert on licensing and copyright, regularly offers an online course on Digital Licensing Agreements. SLA offers an online course through ClickU University on Digital Content Management (also taught by Lesley Ellen Harris). MLS programs cover licensing topics in acquisitions, collection development and digital library courses. Some MLS programs allow auditing of courses for continuing education. A recent article in Library Connect entitled Managing Vendor Relations: A Graduate Course Worth our Time discusses a new MLS course at University of Western Ontario on business relations between librarians and information vendors. (For a list of ALA accredited library schools, check out the ALA LIS Directory). The American Libraries Datebook also has a section on online courses.


The law librarian community can be incredibly helpful on licensing and vendor relations. LIBLICENSE is a popular listserv which discusses licensing issues in academic and research libraries. The LIBLICENSE archives are searchable by keyword and can be useful for looking up a specific vendor or product or issue. Law-Lib occasionally deals with licensing and publishing issues. AALL and SLA local and regional listservs or interest groups consider licensing topics from time to time. The new Electronic Resources and Libraries website describes itself as a “forum for information professionals to explore ideas, trends and technologies related to electronic resources and digital services.” While the Electronic Resources and Libraries’ blog is still in the works, such an online forum sounds promising. Additionally, their Learning Center has PowerPoints from past conference presentations.


There are many useful websites on licensing including:

Association of Research Libraries – ARL links to many of the standard licensing principles adopted by libraries and library organizations. – Maintained by Lesley Ellen Harris, this site covers licensing and copyright. Check out her articles on “How to Be a Better Negotiator”, “Getting What You Bargained For”, “A Sample Licensing Policy for Your Library” and “Are Model Licenses the Answer?”

LIBLICENSE – Maintained by Yale University Libraries, this site provides links to model and publisher licenses, defines licensing terminology, maintains a bibliography on licensing and examines terms commonly found in license agreements.

Northwestern University Library – Discusses the nuts and bolts of electronic resource licensing and includes a useful appendix on undesirable/unacceptable terms.

University of California Libraries – Explains open access, publishing models, copyright, licensing, preservation, and statistics. Also provides a link to a useful checklist for licensing provisions.

University of Texas – Provides links to licensing and copyright resources. Their Software and Database License Agreement Checklist is especially helpful.

Newsletters & Magazines

A variety of publications cover licensing topics. Searching Wilson’s Library Literature and Information Science Database is an easy way to find relevant articles. The Informed Librarian, a monthly compilation of the tables of contents of library and information journals, is also a good current awareness resource. The following journals frequently publish articles on licensing: Against the Grain, Information Today, Journal of Library Administration, Serials Librarian, and Serials Review. Articles have also appeared in D-Lib, Information Advisor, Information Outlook, Interlibrary Lending and Document Supply, Law Library Journal, Library Resources & Technical Services, Online and Searcher.


Because they cover the topic in a substantial and systematic way, books are a great tool for learning about licensing and frequently contain checklists, sample contract language and bibliographies. You may find the following titles of interest:

Stephen Bosch, Patricia Promis & Chris Sugnet, Guide to Licensing and Acquiring Electronic Information, Scarecrow Press (2005).

Arlene Bielefield and Lawrence Cheeseman, Interpreting and Negotiating Licensing Agreements: A Guidebook for the Library, Research and Teaching Professions, Neal-Schuman Publishers (1999).

Lesley Ellen Harris, Licensing Digital Content: A Practical Guide for Librarians, ALA (2002).

Karen Rupp-Serrano, Licensing in Libraries: Practical and Ethical Aspects, Haworth Information Press (2005).

Audrey Fenner, Managing Digital Resources in Libraries, Haworth Information Press (2004).

Fiona Durrant, Negotiating Licenses for Digital Resources, Facet (2006).

Linda Tashbook, Survey on Licensing, in Briefs in Law Librarianship v.8, William S. Hein & Co (2004).


If you have specific licensing questions, a mentor can be a great resource. There are many experienced librarians who are happy to provide their perspective on licensing. I have been very grateful for advice from my counterparts at other academic institutions. I also find a lot of commonalities in licensing discussions with the main campus librarians as well as with local county and law firm librarians. Legal counsel may have some helpful advice (although some librarians prefer to avoid lawyers at all costs). A chief financial officer, business manager or head of purchasing is often a great resource for the business side of negotiations.

Common Sense

Don’t be intimidated. Remember, if you have bought a car, a house, and/or insurance, you have already read boilerplate contracts and negotiated complex purchase agreements. Use your common sense and ask questions. You will become a seasoned veteran in no time!

Posted in: Deal or No Deal, Electronic Subscriptions, Legal Research, Legal Technology, Libraries & Librarians, Online Legal Research Services