Ah, copyright, that dreaded word and least understood concept. While we’ve all heard of copyright and how it is important, we don’t’ always understand it or consciously think about it. You can go to www.copyright.gov to find out what it means. The historical section is the most informative. www.copyright.gov/history and puts copyright into an historical, legal, and societal perspective. The history of copyright is fleshed out in two wonderful publications; one is an exhibit brochure from 1970 A Century of Copyright: An Exhibit http://www.copyright.gov/history/century.pdf , the second is a history of copyright by the historian of the Library of Congress John Y. Cole Of Copyright, Men & a National Library: Copyright in the Library of Congress 125th Anniversary http://www.copyright.gov/history/125thanniversary.pdf . The Association of Research Libraries has a wonderful timeline of copyright laws and events http://www.arl.org/pp/ppcopyright/copyresources/copytimeline.shtml
Many scholars and historians write about the nature of copyright and its impact upon the history of the book and the publishing industry. One of the current books on the topic is Adrian Johns’ Piracy: The intellectual property wars from Gutenberg to Gates. (University of Chicago Press, 2009). Another important book on the topic is Siva Vaidhyanathan's Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity (NY: NYU Press, 2003). While the history of the topic is very important for librarians and archivists, it’s equally important to recognize the various aspects that affect our jobs and our ability to provide materials to patrons. Copyright affects our ability to provide materials to users, from e-reserves to inter-library loan, from streaming video to movie night, and from downloadable e-books and audio books to computer software. These are just some of the services affected by copyright.
There are many items in our libraries that are in the public domain. Those items are not protected by copyright laws. In the United States, items published before 1923 are in the public domain, as are many items published by federal, state, and local government agencies. Most government documents are in the public domain, which means they can be used and modified freely. But not all of them fit within this category. That’s a question to ask a government documents librarian. Government documents produced by Britain and any of her Commonwealth countries, including Canada, are held under copyright in perpetuity. Copyright protection in other countries varies. Copyright laws are complicated and vary by country, and there are international copyright laws and protections. Talk with your legal counsel if you have questions. A comic book on the topic of fair use “Bound By Law? Tales from the Public Domain” www.law.duke.edu/cspd/comics provides a wonderful primer for understanding how copyright laws work. For guidelines as to copyright duration check out Peter Hirtle’s information Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States 1 January 2012 http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm .
There’s a third component of copyright that many librarians need to work with or be able to identify. Fair Use is a term that’s bandied about frequently. What does it mean? It means you can copy or use an article or part of a work without asking permission from the copyright holder providing you meet these four criteria:
- Purpose or character of use
- Nature of the work
- The amount of the material that is used
- Impact on the market
Here’s a link to the description of Fair Use from the Copyright Office at LOC http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html
ALA has a host of tools to help you with copyright, fair use and the public domain
LOC even has a blog on Copyright and Digitization http://blogs.loc.gov/copyrightdigitization/
Almost every month, American Libraries prints an article or two about copyright. Librarians aren’t the only ones concerned about the topic. Archivists have an even thornier time with copyright if items in their collections were unpublished. Thank goodness there’s now a date when unpublished materials enter the public domain.
Creative commons licensing is a great alternative to traditional copyright. It puts articles, books, and more into everyone’s hands with fewer restrictions. http://creativecommons.org/about/. I’m certain we’ll see even more of this option as time progresses because it is almost impossible to write and publish materials and put them directly into the public domain unless explicitly stating so. Creative Commons Licensing is the next best thing.
Right now the most pressing concerns about copyright that librarians are dealing with are e-reserves, licensing databases, access to their content and the ability to provide inter-library loan copies from digital journals. Add in Course Management Software, digital rights management for audio and e-books, and streaming video and you have a very confusing subject.
The Association of Research Libraries just published a report about copyright and fair use for academic and research libraries (Jan 2012) that provides guidelines for today’s librarians. http://www.arl.org/pp/ppcopyright/codefairuse/index.shtml This report contains the newest information on copyright, particularly those in charge of e-reserves and inter-library loan.
Take a course or a workshop on copyright every few years to stay on top of issues that affect libraries and archives. When in doubt, ask the library’s legal counsel. The topic is complicated and nuanced. There’s a place in libraries for lawyers, particularly with negotiation of contracts and licenses for electronic resources.
 ALCTS "The Black, White, and Gray Areas of Licensing: A Review and Update for Librarians and Publishers" webinar presented by Becky Albitz, Bob Boissy, and Tracy L. Thompson-Przylucki on February 29, 2012. Contact ALCTS for access to the recorded webinar http://www.ala.org/alcts