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A little known quirk of the law forces hard-pushed publishers to send off five free copies of every book to a government agency - or risk falling foul of the law. Dave Woodhall reckons it's time to start a new chapter.

JK Rowling was recently in the news again, thanks to her latest venture, the Harry Potter spin-off - The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Restricted to just seven copies, six of which will be given away by the author, the remaining copy is to be auctioned for charity with a starting price of 30,000.

However, the lucky seven owners may be interested to know that they will not be the only ones able to read this story. For the author will be legally obliged to send five further copies to the government's Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries (ALDL).

The Legal Deposit Libraries Act of 2003 enshrined the requirement, in force since the Copyrights Act of 1911, that all publishers must, by law, send five copies of every item they publish to Legal Deposit.

These then go to the Bodleian in Oxford, Cambridge University library, the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales and Trinity College library in Dublin. It doesn't matter whether you're Random House or a sci-fi nerd running off a fanzine in your spare room, the law requires you hand those copies over or (in theory) face the consequences.

While it's a noble idea to create an archive that covers the nation's literary history, I also feel this to be an infringement of civil liberties.

The idea that a government body can order every publication to be sent to them, and threaten non-compliers with the full force of the law, strikes me as more akin to a totalitarian regime than a country whose prime minister recently promised to open " a new chapter" on civil liberties. On a practical note, it's also a bit of a cheek for them to demand free copies of books, with postage paid, in an industry where making a living grows ever-harder.

Quite why this law exists is unknown. Representatives from the ALDL were unable to provide justification, except for stating that, "It's a legal requirement." The best explanation they could come up with was that many publishers fail to fulfil their obligations even though doing so is illegal, and this figure would undoubtedly rise should deposit be voluntary. Why it has to be done at all, they were either unwilling or unable to elaborate upon.

Theoretically, anyone failing to comply with the act can be forced to pay a sum equivalent to the cost of publishing the required copies, although the ALDL representative I spoke to admitted that legal action is impractical. In fact, she could only recall one such instance in the past forty years. She further admitted that it was "unlikely" JK Rowling would be chased too hard for five copies of her latest work.

It might sound a fuss about nothing. But I still remain concerned that this, or a future, government could force me to hand over copies of anything I might choose to publish about them. To me, that doesn't sit easily alongside the concept of a free society.

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