10 Things U.S. Librarians Must Know About Copyright Law

Here you will read 10 essential things U.S. librarians and information professionals must know about U.S. and international copyright law. Copyright compliance is often the domain of librarians and information professionals and understanding U.S. and international copyright law principles will help ensure copyright compliance and avoid copyright infringement. Copyright law is not always straightforward and these 10 essential points will guide you towards copyright compliance in your library and organization.

10 Things U.S. Librarians Must Know About About Copyright Law

Copyright educationLibrarians and information professionals with a strong grasp of copyright provisions and concepts may find legally using content easier.

Finding your way through the maze that is U.S. copyright law is challenging. Do you have to register a work to protect it under U.S. copyright law? Can you share a PDF of an article that you accessed through your licensed database? Does fair use give you much latitude in using copyright-protected materials?

These are some of the many questions librarians and information professionals face in their day-to-day work. Following are 10 essential things every librarian and information professional should know about U.S. copyright law. Note that it was not easy to narrow this list down to 10 points – it really is just the tip of the iceberg.

#1: Ideas are not protected by U.S. copyright law.

U.S. copyright law doesn’t protect ideas, facts, historical facts, or news. It’s the expression of ideas (and facts, news, etc.) that’s protected by copyright. This means you can summarize an article or write a blog post based on news events, as long as you don’t reproduce or copy the article or news story.

#2: The creator is generally the first owner of a copyright-protected work.

The general rule of ownership is that the creator of a work is the first owner of its copyright. This general rule is, however, subject to a number of exceptions. One such exception is the “work for hire” provision, which stipulates that employers, under certain conditions, own the copyright in works created by employees during the course of their employment.

#3: Copyright protection is automatic.

Copyright is automatic upon the creation of a work in a fixed form—for example, written on paper, saved to your computer’s hard drive, or stored on a memory card in your camera or phone. The international copyright symbol and notice (for example, © Smart Copyright Corp. 2017) doesn’t have to be affixed to the work for it to be copyright-protected.

#4: Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is voluntary.

Registering works with the U.S. Copyright Office, which requires depositing a copy of the work, isn’t mandatory for copyright protection, but it does provide some benefits. For the copyright owner, registration provides a presumption of copyright ownership and confers certain benefits when pursuing a copyright infringement lawsuit. From a librarian or other user’s perspective, registration makes it easier to identify the copyright owner and facilitates the permissions process. However, since registration is voluntary, a search of the Copyright Office’s records may not yield the information you need.

The Copyright Leadership Certificate is a fully online program designed for librarians and other non lawyers to empower them with practical copyright information.

#5: Only the copyright owner has the “right to copy.

Copyright is, literally, the “right to copy” and includes a “bundle” of rights. Section 106 of the U.S. Copyright Act sets forth the following exclusive rights for authors of works:

(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;

(2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;

(3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;

(4) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;

(5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and

(6) in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

#6: Copyright duration in the U.S. is life plus 70.

The international norm for the duration of copyright protection is the life of the author plus 50 years, as set out in the leading international copyright treaty, the Berne Convention. However, some countries, including the United States and European Union countries, go beyond this norm and now provide copyright protection for life plus 70 years.

#7: You must have permission to use a copyright-protected work, even if it’s an orphan work.

With few exceptions, you need permission from the owner of a copyright-protected work to use it. That said, it isn’t always possible to locate a copyright owner. The works of unlocatable copyright owners are called “orphan works.” If you can’t identify or locate a copyright owner (or if a copyright holder doesn’t reply to your permission requests), there’s no mechanism under U.S. copyright law that allows you to legally use that work.

#8: You don’t need permission to use a work that’s in the public domain.

If a work is in the public domain, you can use it in any manner — even modify or adapt it — without having to obtain permission. Some works are in the public domain because their copyright duration has expired or they didn’t qualify for copyright protection in the first place (such as most works of the U.S. government).

#9: There are some limitations on copyright.

The U.S. Copyright Act balances the interests of copyright owners  with those of content users by including limitations on the exclusive rights of owners, such as fair use and specific exceptions. However, the act doesn’t explicitly set out what uses constitute fair use; instead, it sets out types of uses to which fair use might apply and factors to consider in determining whether a use may be fair use. Fair use must be interpreted by each individual using content in each situation. Reading fair use decisions helps clarify situations to which fair use has or has not been applied.

The ultimate arbiter of fair use is a judge in a court of law. Due to the ambiguity of fair use and the risk involved in applying it, some enterprises avoid it. Others, on the other hand, embrace fair use and see it as a useful provision in their organization. You should know your organization’s policy and procedures on making a fair use judgment.

In addition to fair use that might apply in your library, section 108 of the U.S. Copyright Act sets out specific uses for eligible libraries where permission and payment are not necessary. These uses include preservation copying and copying for interlibrary loans.

#10: U.S. copyright law applies to copyright-protected materials used in the United States.

Since 1989 the United States has been a member of the leading international treaty on copyright, the Berne Convention, which is administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). In 1999, the United States joined the two WIPO digital/Internet treaties. From the information professional’s perspective, this means that when reproducing or sharing copyright protected materials from the other 174 Berne country members, you should apply U.S. law if you’re using those materials in the United States.

Librarians and information professionals involved with copyright issues should see the following:

Lawyer or Librarian? Who Will Answer Your Copyright Question?

Copyright Leadership Certificate (a self-paced program for librarians and other non lawyers to learn how to manage everyday copyright and licensing issues)






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