5 Facts Librarians Must Know About Copyright Law

Librarians and information professionals are often seen as the gatekeepers to content. In that role, they also become interpreters of copyright law and licensing agreements.

May I make one copy of an article from a licensed journal?

Does fair use apply to the photocopying of 20 articles for an in-house seminar?

Do we need permission to use an image we found through Google images?

These are some of the many questions librarians face on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately copyright law is not straight-forward and there is no book of “copyright rules.” Rather the Copyright Act is interpretative and we must apply our particular facts to the law to determine when and whether permission is needed from a copyright owner. Below are five facts about copyright law that all librarians should know.

Fair Use is Ambiguous and Flexible

Fair use is intentionally ambiguous. You cannot never know for sure whether your use of content falls within the fair use factors (unless it is decided by a judge in a court of law.) That’s how the provision (Section 107) in the U.S. Copyright Act was written. The plus side is that fair use is flexible and is adaptable to changing needs and uses of content. Taking time to 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 will help you make your own judgment calls when applying fair use in your organization.

There is No Substitute for Obtaining Copyright Permission

If you have determined that you need copyright permission to use content then you must obtain permission before using that content. If you email, fax, snail mail and call a copyright owner but never receive a reply all your efforts do not entitle you to use that content without the copyright owner’s permission.

Occasionally You May Need to Obtain Permission to Use U.S. Government Materials

Although many U.S. government documents and materials are not protected by copyright and are free for anyone to use, 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 government will own copyright in that report unless he assigns it in writing to the government.

Consult Your License Agreements on a Regular Basis

When you have a license agreement with a periodical or database, each use of an article or portion of that periodical or database is governed by the terms and conditions of that license. So 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 is permitted.

Online Images May be Protected by Copyright Law

Images found online may be protected by copyright law. Many people think that the images found in their Internet searches are copyright-free. That is not true. Just because an image is online does not mean that it is not protected by copyright. So always start with the assumption that those images are protected by copyright unless you investigate and determine their copyright status.

Need to learn more in plain English about copyright law?

Check out my upcoming online course, Copyright Law for Librarians and Info Pros.


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