Why Copyright?

by Paul Hellyer


So why should VALLTalk have a series on copyright law, of all things? I would say that for most

librarians, there’s no area of law more important than copyright. Being a librarian is all about sharing intellectual property, in one way or another.  We need to know how to get our jobs done without getting ourselves into trouble.

But for librarians, copyright should be more than just a cautionary tale. Copyright knowledge  is empowering in our day-to-day work. It also gives us an opportunity to advocate for our patrons’ interests.
Copyright law has long been a tug-of-war between owners’ interests and users’ interests. On the owners’ side, publishers and movie studios spend a great deal of money on advertising, lobbyists and lawyers to advance their interests. But it’s harder for users to organize and represent themselves.  We’re bombarded by messages about owners’ rights. What about users’ rights? Who will stand up for them?

Now I can hear some of you saying, “but users have no rights. Copyright law is for the benefit of copyright owners.” If you think this, you’ve been listening to the wrong people.

The ultimate purpose of copyright law is not to protect owners’ interests. It’s to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts.” That’s from the Constitution, Article I, Section 8. The Supreme Court has made it clear that copyright is ultimately designed to promote the public’s interests. See Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken, 422 U.S. 151, 156 (1975) (“[T]he ultimate aim is . . . to stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good”); U.S. v. Paramount Pictures, 334 U.S. 131, 158 (1948) (“[C]opyright law . . . makes reward to the owner a secondary consideration”);  Fox Films Corp. v. Doyal, 286 U.S. 123, 127 (1932) (“[T]he primary object [of copyright] lie[s] in the general benefits derived by the public from the labors of authors”).

Copyright is a balance between incentives for creators and access for the public. Publishers have been putting a lot of weight on their end of the scale. Librarians can put some pressure on the other end.

Congress has already acknowledged the special role that libraries play in the dissemination of intellectual property. We have our own section in the Copyright Act, Section 108, that gives libraries certain rights beyond what other users can do. Libraries exercise these rights for the benefit of their patrons. We also benefit from fair use rights, which are especially strong when we’re serving academic researchers.

To benefit from these rights, we have to educate ourselves. We can’t rely on publishers to tell us what to do. When it comes to copyright law, publishers are usually not a reliable source of information. They tend to overreach in describing their own rights and often fail to acknowledge fair use and other exceptions. Librarians need to create their own forums for copyright law.

So that’s why copyright is on VALLTalk.

If you have questions about copyright law that you would like to see addressed in this column, please send them to me at phellyer@wm.edu. I can’t provide legal advice, but like any commentator, I can discuss hypotheticals or general questions.

I also hope to be writing soon on the 11thCircuit’s forthcoming ruling in Cambridge University Press v. Becker. This case is a great example of a library and university standing up for users’ rights. Oral arguments were held in November, so the ruling could come any time now. This is an important case for libraries and for fair use, so let’s keep our fingers crossed.
Paul Hellyer has been a reference librarian at William & Mary Law School since 2005 and he is co-author of Librarian’s Copyright Companion, 2nd ed., published in 2012 by Hein.

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