Librarians find themselves dealing with numerous issues in their everyday work; one of their least favorite issues is probably dealing with copyright. How much of a journal can you copy to fulfill an interlibrary loan request? Can a professor play a movie clip in a class without getting permission from the movie studio first? Overreaching copyright notices included in some publications don’t help matters, making the reader think that doing anything besides reading the article on the screen requires permission from the publisher. There are alternatives to traditional copyright licensing, such as Creative Commons, but those alternatives are not always well-known or understood.
To help answer librarians’ questions about copyright and fair use, Ben Keele and I from the William & Mary Law Library - presented “What Can I Do With This?: Deciphering Copyright and Fair Use Notices” at the VLA/VALL Joint Conference on October 27. The presentation was aimed at a non-law-librarian audience, so I began with an introduction to copyright basics: what rights a copyright holder gets, what can be copyrighted, what infringement is, the Section 108 defense to infringement for libraries, and fair use.
Next, Ben discussed the importance of copyright notices and where to find them: copyright notices are the best place to discover exactly what the copyright owner is willing to let you do without having to specifically ask their permission. However, as Ben pointed out, sometimes the copyright notice will try to preclude the user from exercising their fair use rights, as with the notice on the website for the journal Nature. Ben provided another example, though, of a database provider (EBSCO) that specifically allowed for fair use in its copyright notice.
Ben then went on to describe alternative models of licensing copyright, such as Creative Commons and the GPL (General Public License). These models allow the copyright holder to easily tell readers what they have permission to do with a work in standardized terms, such as allowing educational use but precluding commercial redistribution or requiring attribution.
The questions from the audience demonstrated the weakness of fair use as it currently stands: no one knows what it is. These days, public discussion of fair use seems to be dominated by antipodean camps: content owners who think there should be no such thing as fair use, and the “information wants to be free” group which believes that everything is fair use. Librarians, caught in between, want a clear answer: how much of a work can I copy and still have it fall under fair use? Unfortunately, the answer we have to give is: it depends. We outlined the factors that go into deciding fair use and provided links to worksheets that librarians can use to determine if their use would probably be considered a fair one. We also made sure to emphasize to the audience that they shouldn’t panic – as a rule, not many libraries have been sued for copyright infringement to date; while it’s always best and simplest to ask permission first if they’re not sure, as long as someone have analyzed the use ahead of time, if it seems like a fair use, librarians should be fine in proceeding.
We had a good time presenting at the conference – the volunteers were friendly and the audience asked good questions. We hope to be able to present again in the future!
The Powerpoint slideshow from the presentation is available at http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/libpubs/28/ .