A consultation paper sets out the arguments as to whether the existing statutory arrangements under which a copy of every book and journal published in the United Kingdom is deposited in national archives should be extended to include other forms of publication, or whether there should be a voluntary system.
The paper, published jointly by the department of national heritage, the Scottish Office, the Welsh Office and the department of education, Northern Ireland, seeks views on the present arrangements for printed publications.
Comments are requested by 11 April.
'The current arrangements have ensured that our nation's heritage of books and documents has been preserved long after they have gone out of print, so that future generations can have access to them.
'But the development of technology, and the growth of non-print forms, means that many new publications will be lost unless the arrangements are changed.
'The government regards it as essential that we find some way to ensure that published material in forms other than print is preserved.'
'Legal deposit imposes a burden on publishers and film makers.
'So it is important that we consider the views of the publishing and film industries as well as libraries, their users and others with an interest before considering whether to introduce legislation.
'We need to consider the scope for building on existing voluntary arrangements as well as statutory deposit.
'We need also to address the circumstances in which published material can be accessed and preserved without infringing publishers' intellectual property rights or damaging their business interests - particularly for electronic publications where the technical means exist for networking.
'The government has an open mind. Through this consultation paper, the government wants to encourage a debate on whether the arrangements covering printed publications need amending and whether they should be extended to cover other forms of published material.
'In the light of the comments we receive, the government will want to consider as a matter of urgency whether to introduce legislation.'
Under the Copyright Act 1911, publishers of every book and journal published in the United Kingdom must deposit one copy with the British Library.
On request, they must also send copies to the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales, the University Library, Cambridge, the Bodleian Library, Oxford and the library of Trinity College, Dublin.
In 1996-97 the British Library expects to receive about 480,000 publications under the arrangement.
The document, 'Legal Deposit of Publications - A Consultation Paper' draws on proposals put to the Government by the British Library and the other legal deposit libraries, and the British Film Institute.