This article educates librarians and information professionals about essential facts in copyright law. Librarians and information professionals need to be aware of these copyright facts in order to help others become more copyright literate through informal and formal copyright education. You may also like our Creating A Copyright Education Strategy eTutorial.
Why Librarians and Information Professionals and Copyright Education?
Librarians and information professionals are “natural” copyright educators. They are the gatekeepers to traditional and electronic content accessed and used in their libraries and organizations. By the very nature of that role, librarians and information professionals are also interpreters of copyright law and digital licensing agreements. The following are some of the common questions librarians and information professionals face on a daily basis.
- May I make one copy of an article from a journal licensed by our library?
- Does fair use apply to the photocopying of 20 articles for an in-house seminar in our organization?
- Do we need permission to use an image in a presentation that we found through Google Images?
Sound familiar? What other questions do you receive in your library or organization about copyright law and terms and conditions in license agreements? And how do you answer the large variety of copyright questions that you receive each day?
Although some libraries and organizations now have Copyright Librarians or Copyright Officers to answer these questions and manage copyright issues on a daily basis, all librarians and information professionals need to have at least a basic understanding of copyright law and how licenses for electronic resources work.
Unfortunately copyright law isn’t straightforward and there’s no book of “copyright rules” for librarians and information professionals. Rather, the copyright acts around the world are interpretative and we must apply our own particular facts to the law to determine when and whether permission is needed from a copyright owner, or when we can use copyright materials without first obtaining permission.
To get you started, below are five facts to educate librarians and information professionals about copyright law.
1. Fair Use Is Ambiguous and Flexible
Fair use is intentionally ambiguous. You can never know for sure whether your use of content falls within the fair use factors unless it’s decided by a judge in a court of law. That’s how the provision (Section 107) in the U.S. Copyright Act was written. Other countries have comparable fair use or fair dealing provisions that must be interpreted on a case-by-case basis.
The advantage of this ambiguity is that fair use is flexible and adaptable to changing needs and uses of content. If you understand the four fair use factors — purpose and character of use, nature of the copyrighted work, amount of the portion copied, and effect of the use on the potential market of the work — and how they have been applied in court cases, it will help you make your own judgment calls when applying fair use in your organization. Also see Understanding Fair Use in U.S. Copyright Law.
2. There’s No Substitute for Obtaining Copyright Permission
If you have determined that you need copyright permission to use copyright materials, then you must obtain permission before using those materials. If you email, snail mail and/or call a copyright owner (or their representative) but never receive a reply, all your efforts do not entitle you to legally use that content without the copyright owner’s permission.
Note that some countries outside the U.S. do have special provisions for the use of such orphan works or where the copyright owners cannot be identified or located. For example, in Canada you can apply for an unlocatable copyright owner license for the use of a work whose author cannot be determined or who is unlocatable.
3. Occasionally You May Need to Obtain Permission to Use U.S. Government Materials
Maps, brochures and others works prepared by U.S. federal government employees do not have copyright protection in them and are in the public domain. They can be used freely by anyone in the U.S.
Not all government materials are available for free use. The U.S. government may own copyright in materials through an assignment or bequest. As an illustration, a consultant who prepares a report for the U.S. government will own copyright in that report unless they assign it in writing to the government. Also see Copyright Law in U.S. Government Works.
4. Consult Your License Agreements on a Regular Basis
When you have a license agreement with a vendor or database publisher, for example, each use of an article or portion of the database is governed by the terms and conditions of that license. If you want to share a PDF full-text article with your boss or an outside consultant, review the terms and conditions of the license to see what’s permitted. Your license governs the terms and conditions of use and should be followed as closely as possible.
5. Online Images May be Protected by Copyright Law
Images found online may be protected by copyright law. Some people think that the images found in internet searches are in the public domain. That’s not true. Just because an image is online doesn’t mean that it’s not protected by copyright. So always start with the assumption that online images are protected by copyright until you investigate and determine their copyright status.
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