Publishers Licensing Society

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The Publishers Licensing Society (PLS) is a not-for-profit organisation that represents book, magazine and journal publishers based in the United Kingdom. PLS works to ensure that publishers are fairly compensated for any copying of their works through the collective licensing scheme, among other rights management services, which have become an increasing important secondary revenue stream for publishers. The society was established in 1981.

PLS distributed £33.5m to publishers from collective licensing in 2012–13, and they work to encourage innovation and good practice in rights management, whether that is in print or online.

Operations overview[edit]

PLS represents the interests of publishers in the collective licensing of photocopying, scanning and digital copying. Together with the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society or ALCS, which looks after authors’ interests, PLS owns and directs The Copyright Licensing Agency and works in partnership with the Design and Artists Copyright Society.

PLS’s core function is to:

  • Enable streamlined rights management solutions for publishers
  • Manage and license rights on behalf of publishers
  • Complement publishers’ primary business – with a valuable secondary revenue stream

Governance and authority[edit]

PLS currently has direct authority from over 3,000 publishers based in the UK (October 2013). It has three owners/ members: the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, the Periodical Publishers Association and the Publishers Association. The PLS Board consists of three senior representatives from each of the publishing trade associations. There are ten Board members in total including the CEO who is an executive director. Two thirds of the Board members are senior executives from publishing houses. As the trade associations are representative of the UK publishing industry, this ensures that the PLS Board is also representative of the UK publishing industry.

PLS also represents publishers that have not yet signed the PLS mandate, but whose works have been copied. PLS will collect royalties for those publishers and hold them on trust until they can be paid to the rightful owners.

In turn, PLS gives authority to CLA to include publishers’ rights within the collective licences that it sells to information users; typically educational institutions, government departments and businesses in the UK. PLS distributes copyright royalties back to publishers by way of distributions.

History and collective licensing[edit]


With the introduction of the dry photocopier in the early 1970s, the situation on control of copyright in the UK’s main institutions ran out of control. Machines appeared everywhere and infringements proliferated.

A committee was formed, chaired by Mr Justice Whitford, on Copyright and Design Law and asked to investigate the situation. It reported early in 1977 and recommended collective copyright licensing as the solution. It also recommended the abolition of the fair dealing and library privilege exceptions. This was dearly desired by publishers but never achieved. Political pressure from information-users was always too great.

Later that year, the Publishers' Association (PA) convened a Committee chaired by Lord Wolfenden, formerly Vice Chancellor of Reading University and Director of the British Museum, to look at the implementation of the Whitford proposals on licensing. Represented on the Committee where the PA, the PPA, ALPSP, the Music Publishers Association, the Society of Authors, the Writers Guild and the Composer Guild. The newspaper associations were invited to join but declined to participate.

Publishers were initially unresponsive to the concept of collective licensing, particularly on a blanket basis. And at an early stage, the Music Publishers Association and the Composers Guild withdrew from the Wolfenden Committee. They conducted two successful and much publicised actions against infringement by photocopying at a public school. This encouraged them to think that the best solution was to issue a Code of Practice backed by legal action rather than licensing. Printed music was excluded from the collective licence. To this day music publishers have never returned.

The Wolfenden Committee made licensing of schools its first objective. The Scottish local authorities always recognised the necessity of licensing. In England and Wales, however, long arguments persisted that all their multiple copying was legal because it did not represent substantial parts of works. The only course of action was to resort to law. A case came to hand over the copying of technical drawings in Manchester local authority. The local authorities backed down and agreed to negotiate a licence. So did the universities, where solicitors’ letters had been issued over similar infringements.

Lord Wolfenden bowed out of the scene and leading copyright lawyer Denis de Freitas was asked to work on the structure of the licensing agency. Publishers wanted there to be an agency, but authors insisted a forceful language from the President, Lord Willis, that all their payments must go through ALCS. It was therefore necessary to form the Publishers Licensing Society, established in 1981, to manage publishers’ rights and pay publishers accordingly.

Setting up a licensing structure on the publishing side had been met by loans from the PA and PPA. When the Copyright Licensing Agency was formed, PLS passed all administration of collective licensing to the new body. Colin Hadley was appointed as the Manager of CLA. PLS was deliberately run as a low key operation in contrast to ALCS. Eventually the profile of PLS was raised by expanding the management team.

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 was a landmark and demonstrated the wisdom of having put the societies and licensing agency in place. The whole principle of licensing was endorsed and written into legislation via Chapter VII of the 1988 Act.

In April 2008 collective licensing completed a full circle with the launch of the first licenses in UK to cover the copying, or re-use, of digital material – the first of their kind to be developed in Europe.

Despite some operational tensions over rights and licensing proposals between PLS and CLA over the years, the creation of the two organisations has been a great success and now raises many millions of pounds each year for publishers. Important to the success of PLS have been the avoidance by the principles (ALPSP, PA, & PPA) of any attempt to undermine each other's position and their willingness to consult with publishers to ensure that the various proposals were acceptable.


  1. ^ This version of events has been adapted from a document written circa 1999 by John Davis, then of the Publishers Association.